Epiphany 6 Sermon

It was 9:30 in the morning on Saturday, June 9, 2018.  I was standing at the lower overlook at Chimney Rocks.  It was a beautiful morning, with just a little morning mist coming down from the passing clouds.  I stood on that spot, overlooking, and I was filled with memories.

Remembering the impromptu mountain bike adventure, I took there with my neighbor.

Remembering the time my friends threw a Frisbee from the top to see how far it would sail.

Remembering the time I proposed there on Easter Eve, 2007 in the middle of a snow squall.

As I stood, remembering the past, I felt very out of place.  I was in my clerical collar and wearing a suit because in 30 minutes I was due to talk about the future—the future possibility of being the pastor here at Zion with the Call Committee.

I stood there, looking from the top of the cliff, praying to calm my nerves, and at that moment this story popped into my head, and the phrase, “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  For many weeks I had pondered the wisdom of that phrase.  And now, months after accepting the call I’ve determined that I’m no prophet.  In the meantime, I don’t think I’ll be hiking with any of you up at Chimney Rocks—just to be safe.

At the end of our Gospel Lesson, Jesus has found himself peering over a cliff.  And he is a prophet—a prophet in his hometown—and the hometown people are raging, they don’t very much like what Jesus has to say.  That’s interesting because Jesus is talking about grace.  But it just so happens that whenever Jesus talks about grace people get angry.

Last week we heard Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:  “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 send the shattered in forgiveness, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  The se said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This week, we hear the crowds’ initial reaction:  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  A more literal translation of that line is actually very beautiful here:  They were amazed at the words of grace walking out of his mouth.

Think about that.  Isn’t that a fantastic image?  Words of grace walking out of Jesus’ mouth.  He is a bus station of grace—sending out grace on various routes, dropping it off wherever there is need.

I don’t believe this is where Jesus loses the crowd.  I’m not even sure things are all that tense when the crowd speaks a slight against him and his father.  Instead, it’s the notion that Jesus, and the very grace walking out of his mouth, cannot be hoarded by the people of Nazareth that sets them over the edge.  I think the people of Nazareth are expecting a hometown treatment, but they receive anything but favoritism.

Jesus quickly reminds them that God’s grace is extended to those who are regarded as outsiders.  God’s mercy goes beyond the human boundaries and barriers that we construct.  It goes even beyond their sacred distinctions of Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean.

Jesus alludes to Elijah helping the widow of Zarephath—a gentile outsider.  He mentions Elisha curing Naaman of his leprosy—he’s a gentile Syrian military commander.  I wonder if Jesus was also thinking of Jonah, who we’re studying in Sunday School—a prophet of God called to extend God’s words to Israel’s northern enemy, Assyria.

Time and again God’s grace challenges us by being given to those we deem as less worthy.  And that’s what Jesus is teaching the people of Nazareth.  God’s grace isn’t just for them.  And they don’t like it.

You know, that’s the incredibly challenging thing about grace.  That’s the reason why it is so much easier to preach judgment and damnation than grace. If the words of grace walking out of Jesus’ mouth are for everyone, then that means they are for me, and they are also for my enemy.

We know that God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness are for us.  We can all make good cases for out righteousness.  We know how much we pray, how much we worship, how much we repent, feel guilty, give money to good causes, and read the Bible.  Certainly we are worthy of God’s grace.  We deserve it.  We’re the best.  We get an A+ in our worthiness.  Right?

But the tricky thing about God’s grace is that it is also destined to visit and work in the lives of the people we judge as unworthy.  The people we might pity or despise.

Can we dare to imagine that God’s grace extends to Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi in the same way it extends to us?

The Super Bowl is happening today, for all yinz Stillers fans can you imagine that God’s grace flows equally to Tom Brady and Bill Belechik, just like it does to Big Ben and Mike Tomlin?  Cheating…Grace gate…

Can we believe that God’s grace extends to the drug dealer, the co-worker who always gets under your skin, the cheater, the opportunist, the criminal, the immigrant, the hothead, the Muslim, the deadbeat, the skinhead, the ignorant, and the self-absorbed?

Can we truly believe that?  Because that’s what Jesus insinuates.  Who has God helped?  A foreign widow.  A foreign general.  Both gentiles.  That’s the history scripture tells.

The Good News is that Jesus came to fulfill God’s promises, not just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world.

This sentiment fills the people of Nazareth with rage.  The words of grace walking out of Jesus’ mouth sound great, unless that grace is shared with people you hate.  If that’s the case, then Jesus must die.  They would rather cast him off a cliff than share God’s mercy.  The people are trying to exorcise Jesus from their midst…and off the cliff.

I think that is the timeless temptation for us as the church.  The temptation to keep Jesus’ grace, love, and message for ourselves.  The temptation to become insular, to be content with our own community within these walls and to fail to share the good news of Jesus Christ with our neighbors.  We fail to diagnose and address issues of need in our community, and we fail to warmly welcome and create bonds with those who are new in our church as this body of Christ. 

The temptation of every church is to suppress and lose our missional identity and to hoard the gifts of God for ourselves.  This is a persistent challenge that exists across time, denomination, and culture.  It is spurred on by change and fear and insecurity.

Jesus experiences the very same temptation as well.  At the beginning of Chapter 4 in Luke Jesus is peering down from another high point.  After the Holy Spirit casts him into the wilderness Satan tempts Jesus.  He takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple and tempts Jesus to claim all the earthly power in the world. 

Jesus is tempted, just like the crowd, to hoard God’s love for himself.  But Jesus succeeds where the crowd will fail.  He knows God has sent him to extend God’s grace, not just to himself, and not just to those who think they deserve it, but to the entire world.

The word of grace will go on.  Satan will not stop it through temptation.  And the crowd will not stop it by force.

The good news is that this grace continues to extend to us, and its just as powerful as when Jesus spoke those words so many years ago.

However, this freeing gift is also our challenge.  Our mission is to bear this message of grace, welcome, and compassion.  As the Body of Christ we are tasked to overcome the temptation of the crowd and to accept and share the grace of Jesus to all people.  That was the ministry Jesus was consecrated to do, and now, as his body, we are given that same awesome opportunity to let words of grace walk out of our mouths.  AMEN

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