Many of you know Becca Ajer. Becca is one of the many daughters of this congregation. She grew up here. It was before my time here. She was the acolyte, communion assistant, eventually even as a high schooler, I understand, worked as the prestigious assistant minister. Then Becca went off to college, and it was an exciting day, when we received word 4 years later that Becca had felt the strange call to go to seminary, and become a pastor. As many of you know, our council met and “supporting” Becca Ajer through seminary was on the agenda. “Raising up leaders for the church” and “encouraging persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel”, after all, are part of our congregation’s constitution and vocation. So we were only doing our job in that council meeting as we discussed what that “support” would look like now. Would it be supporting Becca through prayer and letters, or sending care packages, through finances...or all of the above? As many of you may remember, we emerged from that meeting with a proposal to fund Becca with a full scholarship, all the way through seminary! I was astounded at the generosity of this congregation, when she received that wonderful gift. “Wow, all those years of raising up young Becca, and now they’re putting their money where their mouth is!” I thought. I was again so proud to be a part of this loving, generous, and supportive family. (BTW, I got a lot of credit for that, especially from the family -- I saw Margi again this week -- but all I had done was ask the question…)
Maybe this isn’t such a good introductory illustration for this sermon because I don’t remember anyone really wanting to hog Becca all for ourselves when she returned from seminary. Maybe there was. But there was that sense that “she was ours.” In a good way. And anywhere she goes from here, she’ll be ours. We were proud of her, and she’s good! (If you hadn’t heard: after her first call up in Lake Elsinore, she has now taken a call in Pennsylvania and is engaged to be married later this year, I understand!) “That’s our Becca,” whether you knew her or not. “That’s our girl!”
You can almost hear a similar sentiment in the first part of our reading today about Jesus, when he came back to Nazareth, unrolled the scroll and started reading -- started reading about God’s justice, freedom from oppression, recovery, hope, joy and forgiveness. Christ’s inauguration speech. “Today,” he concludes, “the scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.” And you can almost hear the proud applause: “Yea, Jesus! That’s our boy!”
Except, they weren’t understanding (like I think this congregation did) that Jesus wasn’t just for them. His proclamation was for everyone.
And so there is this very abrupt shift from excitement and parental pride...to anger. It’s a foreshadowing, btw, of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. When the crowds, in a very short period of time, flip their tone completely from “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”...to “Crucify him!”
Jesus is for everyone -- particularly the outsider. And that makes people mad.
Where are you with getting on board with Jesus‘ mission? Jesus’ mission’s like a train…
I’ve always dreamed about a high-speed bullet train in California and across the country. I’ve said before, if I was ever running for public office, my platform would be the “train platform”. Part of it, I think, is just my childhood (but abiding) fascination with trains. But also, what I see as environmental benefits, as well as ease and job creation, and cool bullet trains zipping across the state, and bla, bla, bla. Tax me whatever, I’m in! And I know it’s controversial, especially since there is, in fact, a multi-billion dollar project underway in California. But that’s my point: it’s underway already. It’s controversial because now it’s started. So there are farmers in the Central Valley who are furious (and understandably so) about a track cutting through their farms. There are taxpayers who never did and never would cast their vote in favor of this. But the plan already passed through them -- despite their anger -- and high speed rail in California is already underway, whether we’re on board with it or not, whether we like it or not.
Like Jesus’ mission to and love for the outsider. It’s controversial because it’s started. In some ways, people of God, we’re a bunch of insiders, especially you long-time Shepherd of the Valley insiders. We know these stories. We’ve sung these songs. We know the rituals and the dynamics, and the rhythms of the saints. And all that’s good and fine. It’s more than that, it’s life-giving, community-building, supportive and hopeful patterns in which we engage week after week, year after year. Jesus is not condemning our insider ways...unless those ways loose track of the outsider. Jesus had them all on board...until he brought up the fact that “there are others”. Then they literally tried to throw him of a cliff. “Jesus is for everyone, particularly the outsider. And that makes people mad.”
But here’s the Good News, truly -- and we can rest in this. God’s mission, Jesus’ high speed rail to the outsider, to the poor, to the outcast, to the stranger, to the prisoner, to the oppressed, is underway already. It’s controversial because its already begun, it’s already passed through us -- and it will keep moving forward, whether we like and jump on board or not. God’s embrace will keep moving, and moving outward.
What would it look like to get on board? Unlike the angry crowd whose track had hit a dead end. (Reminds me of when I used to build track as a kid -- and even as an adult :) -- and we’d run turn track into just a dead end.) That crowd had run themselves into a dead end...
At our council retreat last week, I was excited to share some notes from this book Autopsy of a Deceased Congregation as our opening devotion -- mostly because we don’t seem to exhibit those signs at all...but still good to hear and name. In the book, the author ...
14 dead churches: the past is hero. Death by nostalgia. The church refused to look like the community. Church becomes a fortress. The budget moved inwardly. The Great Commission becomes the Great Omission. The preference-driven Church (for example: “traditional” vs. “contemporary”). The church obsessed over facilities.
Jesus’ track -- on the other hand -- goes on, and on, and on…not because it’s a circle.
[slowly] But it is a spiral. Jesus’ track, Christ’s mission does loop back to pick us up again and again. God sure does some odd engineering. This day, once again, Christ is inviting us to jump on board. And this is a mission, a task, an ongoing call to let go. All this language about release to the prisoner, recovery of sight to the blind letting the oppressed go free -- all this loops back to pick us up too: it’s about letting go. Christ invites us to let go of our anger, our fear, our bitterness. Forgiveness is so deeply imbedded in all this. The year of jubilee -- a concept from the Old Testament book of Leviticus -- is about forgiving your neighbor every seven years. We can hold grudges, but what if we let our grudges and our resentments go, every seven years? Been holding a grudge for seven years? Today the scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing. God is love. All aboard! (Oh yeah, and our ticket is free!) Amen.