January 31, 2010

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13
Luke 4:21-30

I’ve been pondering these scripture texts all week and thinking about what to say to you this morning. And most of my attention has been focused on the prophets. I spent some time on Friday reading about Jeremiah and his call as a prophet to the people of Judah in the period just before the exile. Jeremiah, whose call we heard today, had the really tough job of preaching God’s words of judgment to the people. He was the one who had to tell them to shape up, to stop worshipping so many false gods, and to turn back to the One God of Israel.

From the very beginning of Jeremiah’s life, he was chosen by God for this difficult task. And though Jeremiah objected, saying that he was only a boy, God said “You will go to all to whom I send you, and you will speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” But figuring out what words to say was probably the least of Jeremiah’s worries. God would give him the message to proclaim, but the hard part was going to be dealing with the people’s response to his words.

God said, “I will appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” In other words, most of what Jeremiah had to do was to bring bad news from God… “Shape up, or God’s going to destroy you! Turn back to God, or this will be the end of you!” Jeremiah’s prophetic role did not make him a popular guy, and he often feared for his life and complained about the ways people mistreated him.

More than 600 years later, Jesus also experienced that kind of rejection when he stood up to preach what may have been his first sermon in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth. By the end of his sermon, the people were driving him out of town, and even threatening to hurl him off a cliff. Why? Because Jesus was claiming to have a special mission from God. He was telling them that his purpose was to use God’s power to bring healing and freedom and demonstrate God’s favour for the poor and suffering people of the world. But in his hometown of Nazareth, he wasn’t going to use that power to help the people of his town.

Maybe they had come hoping to receiving something from him that day. Surely they had heard about the miracles that he was already performing in Capernaum, and they were counting on him to do some miraculous things for them too. But Jesus showed no special favoritism towards his immediate neighbours, and many of them went away angry or disappointed after hearing his message that day.

As a preacher, I am very aware of the fact that the sermons I write are often full of words of challenge, rather than simply comforting and encouraging anecdotes. Those who come to worship looking only for healing and blessing in their OWN lives may well be disappointed with what they hear. Because the message of Jesus that I have heard, and that I try to share with those who will listen, is not just “You’re okay, and God loves you.” No, Jesus calls us to turn our lives upside down, to drop our own priorities and follow his way of life. And it’s a way that involves personal risk, and self-giving love, and dedicated commitment to stay on the path with Jesus, even when things get tough.

When we encounter Jesus and his love, we discover that we’re not okay. When we are confronted with his goodness, we discover that we’re selfish, and we’re stingy, and we’re judgmental. We discover that we need to change. And we also discover that God is going to help us to change and to become the loving people that we were made to become.

Less than two weeks ago, I was reminded of how difficult it can be to be the one to voice judgment or correction to someone else in the Christian community. It was a particularly busy afternoon here at the church, with lots of people coming and going from several meetings in the building. As members of the church were arriving for an event, many noticed the nearly-full parking lot and wondered about an unfamiliar pick-up truck that was parked in the lot.

A woman was sitting in the truck, waiting for her friend who was attending a short meeting in the church. Several members stopped to talk to the woman and discovered that yes, she had a good reason to be waiting in the church parking lot… her friend, who owned the truck, was inside. But at least one church member, who spoke to the stranger, made her feel unwelcome. This person didn’t seem to believe the woman’s story about her friend being at a meeting in the church, and derogatory statements about the state of the pick-up truck were made. It was upsetting enough to our visitor that her friend came back inside later to tell me what had happened. Of course, I apologized profusely on behalf of the church, but I could do little more. I didn’t even know who it was that had spoken so harshly to the stranger in our parking lot.

Part of me was thankful not to know, because if I knew, I would need to say something. I would need to confront that person and challenge them to do better next time. That was not a conversation that I would look forward to having… not only because pointing out someone’s shortcomings is uncomfortable, but also because I could easily imagine myself making the same mistake… Maybe because I was cold or tired, and just wanted a place to park quickly so I could get inside to my meeting… Maybe because I was frustrated with all the people parking illegally, making things difficult all the time… Or maybe just because I was having a bad day, and I was losing patience with the first person who got in my way… Whatever “reasons” I might come up with for my impatience and inhospitality, I know that I am just as guilty as that person for failing to enact God’s love to my neighbours and to the strangers I encounter each day.

I remember Jesus’ teaching about judging others… You know, “take the log out of your own eye first, so you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye”… And so, I am called not just to “let it go”, not just to pretend that it never happened… But I am called to examine the way I interact with our neighbours (even the illegal parkers), as well as the way I treat the clerks in the store, the waitresses in the restaurant, the people I pass by on the street, and indeed, all the people that I interact with each day. How do my words, and my eye contact, and my care and respect for each person demonstrate God’s love for the people I encounter? Or do they?

As I was writing this sermon yesterday afternoon, another member of our church stopped by my house, and what happened sent my sermon in another direction. She phoned to say that she had something to drop off. And when I saw her approaching the house with a package of food, I assumed that it must be something to pass along to Gwen (who is home sick at the moment).

Well, it turned out that the package of food was for me — a full homemade supper, including a bottle of wine. The gesture was a thank-you for a small favour that I had done, which was obviously much appreciated. But I was blown away by the care and thoughtfulness of the gift… abundantly more than I deserved, given in gracious love.

And I thought of Gwen, actually, and how she had asked me to express her thanks to everyone for all the support, and especially for all the cards and notes that you have been sending. And I thought of all the people in our church who are caring for each other by visiting, or sending food, or writing cards, or phoning, or praying for those who are going through tough times right now. I also thought of the generosity of this congregation towards those outside our community — like last month when many of you responded to a call for financial help to make Christmas dinner at the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry possible. And these last few weeks, I’m sure that many have been giving generously to help the people suffering in Haiti, likely in addition to your regular offerings, and certainly in addition to the many ways that you serve within the church and the wider community.

Today’s scripture readings do remind me of the challenging nature of the Gospel — that God is constantly calling us to live more faithfully and more lovingly within our world. I pray that God will help us to hear that challenging call with humility, and that God will help us to speak that challenging call to each other with courage, even as we celebrate the ways that we are already living it out in our community and beyond.

May the love of which Paul wrote — that patient, kind, humble, and respectful love — the love that rejoices in the truth, the love that bears all things, endures all things, and never ends… May that love grow within us and among us, and may its power stretch out from us into all the world, that all people may experience the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.