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The Rev. Charles Morris The Rev. Charles Morris
The Rev. Charles Morris is senior minister of Fort Washington Collegiate Church in New York, NY, and president of the Collegiate Church Corporation.

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Fort Washington Collegiate Church, New York, NY


Gospel Living Made Simple

Luke 4:14-21

3rd Sunday after Epiphany - Year C

January 27, 2013

I don't use acronyms very often, but over the years I have found KISS to be a good reminder when I've had to speak about a controversial subject, lead a difficult church board meeting, or meet with folks in conflict.  Used as an acronym, kiss means "keep it simple, stupid."

Though at times, what I've said or done may indicate just the opposite, I've never thought of myself as stupid, so I've taken the liberty of making an adjustment.  To me kiss means--keep it simple and straightforward!  

That's the way I would characterize what we find in the passage from Luke's gospel.  Often described as his first sermon--the way he began his public ministry--what Jesus said is, indeed, simple and straightforward.

Luke's account goes like this:

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. 18He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

And here's the part we must not forget:

Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

 

Perhaps just a bit of context will be appropriate.  Jesus didn't unroll the scroll haphazardly.  He opened it to a particular place, knowing that Isaiah spoke to God's people when they were exiled, when Israel needed to hear a word of promise, not despair, and be given a word of hope that would serve to keep their faith alive.

Dietrich Bonheoffer, the great German theologian, who defied Hitler and the unspeakable terror he caused, rightly said that "the essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy."

So often, those of us who preach the gospel, and lots of folks who gather to be the church, make the faith we proclaim too complicated.  We use lots of words, many of which cause enmity and diminish hope, in order to defend positions that have more to do with personal preferences than the basic truth of the gospel and which do more harm than good. 

We argue about whether baptism should be by immersion or sprinkling or whether it's better to use wine or grape juice when we celebrate the Lord's Supper.  We wonder how Jesus can be both human and divine.  We debate whether we are pre- or postmillennialists, supra- or infralapsarian; whether all people should be welcomed into our church family, or only some people; or whether Jesus is "the" way or "a" way.

Yes, it's true.  More than not, we do major in the minors.  We use lots of words that complicate the basic truth of the gospel, words that divide rather than unite, confuse rather than clarify, words that rob us of a way of living that is intentional, clearly understood, and straightforward, and leave folks with little hope of being transformed by God's ever-gracious, always-faithful love.

Suddenly, I'm reminded of an apt bit of wisdom most often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi:  "Preach the gospel at all times," he said, "and when necessary use words."

Isn't that the deeper meaning behind what Jesus said?  "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" is not a proclamation seeped in arrogance.  It points to the enduring truth of the one we call Savior and Lord--who he was and how he lived; and if it is our intent to be more like Jesus, then we must make what Jesus said shape who we are and what we do.   

By the way, if you're thinking that you're not capable of building for yourself that kind of life--a life filled with meaning and purpose--then you need to hear these words spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Everybody can be great," he said, "because anybody can serve.  You don't have to have a college degree to serve.  You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve....You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love."

Without seeming to digress, I think it's important for us to recall the progression of the gospel story.  Just before the passage we are focusing on today, Luke records two important events.

First, Jesus was baptized by John.  Secondly, Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil.  Both events establish the essential connection between God and God's people.  For Jesus, baptism wasn't an end; it was a beginning. 

In Matthew's gospel we learn that when Jesus went to be baptized, 14John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you."  15But Jesus answered, saying, "Let it be so; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."

Righteousness, right living, making how you live God-focused is a choice.  We know this because of what happened next.

Immediately, according to Matthew, Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he needed to choose, no less than you and me, a way of living that honors our God.

Baptism does connect us to God--not to make our lives carefree, but to enrich us with God's Spirit and empower us to choose grace rather than judgment, engagement rather than indifference, and forgiveness rather than revenge.  

And note what happened.  When that forty-day trial in the wilderness ended, where did Jesus go?  Filled with the Spirit, Jesus went back to Nazareth.  He went home.

Might that not say something important to you and me?  It's not a contradiction of the commission to go into all the world, but the necessary reminder that we can and must live into the gospel message where we are--today, at this very moment, in whatever place God calls us to be. 

It doesn't matter how big or tiny your world may seem, how many people you may know, or whether your place of work is large or small, the way Jesus lived should cause us to proclaim the gospel with few words and with lots of love--right where we are!

To me it's important to note that when Jesus was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he opened it to the place where it says, "...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."

We don't know what Jesus may have said if he had been asked to describe people who are poor, people in captivity, people who are blind, and people who are oppressed. 

But we do know what Isaiah meant when he spoke that word, prophetically, to Israel.  He was proclaiming God's intent that God's servant will pay particular attention to people who are afflicted and bound and blind.

Now stay with me.  Isn't this the simple truth that stands at the heart of the gospel--that God's love is for everyone--not the privileged few, not the folks with whom we are already connected!

And how do so many of us respond?  We live with an "us/them" mentality.  We view people as right or wrong, good or bad, in or out.  We are impoverished by our lack of vision, captive to behaviors that demean and devalue other people, and blinded by attitudes that folks of different color or culture or gender or sexual orientation or political persuasion are less than children of the living God and don't deserve to be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ.

When I'm asked to speak about what I've learned in my role as the lead pastor of a uniquely diverse, multiracial, fully inclusive and welcoming church family, I begin with what is, for me, a key learning--that the challenge of the gospel is simple and straight forward, but not easy.  I say that because I am white and have lived a privileged life, because the love and grace of Jesus does not allow us to stay where we are.  It prompts us to value people we would sometimes rather ignore; and because to be the church, we must be daring and bold enough to step beyond traditional boundaries to encounter God in radically new ways.

In Revelation 7, the apostle John envisioned God's reign as "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"

Dare we commit ourselves fully to John's vision?  Dare we choose to live into the truth which is at the very heart of the gospel, the truth proclaimed by Jesus when he opened the book of the prophet Isaiah?

If we don't, we rob ourselves of the incalculable joy of serving the one seated on the throne, and the Lamb--the one whose first word and last word is never anything less than love.

Let us pray.  Ever gracious God, as we seek to become more like Jesus, enrich and empower us with the simple straightforward truth of the gospel.  Make us bold in our witness so that your love is known to all people.  This we pray in the name of Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

 

 


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