tossing prophets off a cliff and other church problems

When the Song of the Angels Is Stilled By Howard Thurman

 

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and the princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among people,

to make music in the heart.

 

Christianity comes to us like a poem.  It is not reducible to a dictionary definition, a soundbite, or a series of steps.  Following Jesus alludes creeds.  We are people of a story: Bethlehem’s Stable, Refuge in Egypt, Lost In The Temple, Pearl of Great Price, Widow’s Mite, Mustard Seed, Prodigal Son, Good Samaritan, 70×7, crowds healed, 5,000 fed, “neither do I condemn you”, “take this cup”, “Not my will- but yours”, “it is finished”,  “Father forgive them”, “Peace be with you”, “Peter do you love me”, The Ethiopian Eunuch, “Saul why do you persecute me”, Cornelius, Lydia, Athens, “how could I withhold baptism”, “It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit” … Jesus comes to remake us, not to be our easily deploy-able soundbite.  Jesus offers us a way of being- with God and neighbor.  It calls for all our heart, all our souls, all our minds.

 

Luke reports, “On the Sabbath day, Jesus went to the synagogue, as was his custom.”  What are our customs and rituals that ground and guide us? In our desire to get to the deeper points of life or the Scripture, let us not move too quickly past the customary things- like hand-washing or weekly worship that shape us in profound ways we may not notice. If we follow Jesus, then we do the things that Jesus did.  Jesus does not quit church and write a blog about it. Jesus keeps going back to church even after the good church folks try to throw him off a cliff! Jesus does not give up on community, even we try to throw the prophets off the cliff.

The custom of worship regularly interrupts our week with eternal questions, pulling our minds up past the daily grind.  

    

Jesus went to the synagogue. Church, let us just be clear: Jesus was a Jew, worshiping on a Saturday in the synagogue, reading from the Hebrew Bible, handed the scroll from Isaiah.

 

Jesus stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling the scroll, Jesus found the place where it is written..” Let’s dwell in that detail for a moment. Unrolling the scroll was no simple matter, the scroll was leather or vellum, maybe 25-30 feet long. There were no chapter divisions or numbered verses. There was no punctuation marks or spaces between words. There were no vowels, just some marks for AEIOU. All this to save precious space. Now Jesus grew up in a world where most people could do a little math and sign their name, but reading was not an essential, even for business. Books cost as much as a house, and no carpenter had them in their home. Yet, Mary and Joseph invest in Jesus’ religious education. Jesus studied the law and the prophets in the synagogue.   At 12 years old, Jesus amazes the scribes and pharisees in the Jerusalem Temple with his questions, insights, and wisdom. Religious education matters. It changes the world.

 

The rabbi in his hometown handed him the scroll- and knew Jesus knew how to handle it! Jesus did not need a TV preacher, hip blogger, or Bible App to guide his theology.  Martin Luther King warns us, “Rarely do we find people who willingly engage in hard, solid, thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think… Our minds are constantly being invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, propaganda, and false facts..(King goes on to talk about this deep trend in the church). The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft-mindedness. A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded people purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan….Strength to Love. Jesus come like a poem.  Let us know his life well, letting his way, ruminate in our hearts.  Let us do the hard work of finding our own way around the Scriptures. Let us be people of the Quadrilateral who think, find our way around the Scriptures, who know our traditions, and are open to holy experiences.  

 

So thoughtful people accustomed to worship, hear The Word of God: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me”. In our desire to get to the heart of Jesus’ sermon, let us take a moment to notice the opening ideas, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointing me.” Remember, how the Word of God was spoken over Jesus through the baptismal waters: “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” That same Spirit anoints us, washing us with Divine Love. Paul Tillich speaks of grace, as God whispering: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you… Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!… Everything is transformed.” (Paul Tillich “You are accepted”). May the a spring of living water, bubble up within you, renewing all of your work.    

 

Without that Living Water washing over us, crowning us with something greater than ourselves, our faith becomes work and our ministry becomes drudgery.  Without that renewal, there will be more eyes to open, more prisoners to release, more crowds needing healthcare, more crosses to bear, more church folks trying to throw us off the cliff.   We can get killed by the letter that was meant for our liberation. Without the love of God pouring into our souls, accepting us, forgiving us, realigning us, we can fall into a hollow orthodoxy that manifests itself in a bitter negative legalism lacking hope or community. So let us not neglect the Spirit, but let the waters of worship and community wash over us again and again and sending us out to offer hope, share love, and do justice.

Hear the poetic and prophetic word from  Isaiah 6. “

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me,

to bring good news to the poor,  to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and to comfort those who mourn

To give a crown of joy in place of ashes,

to sing praise in place of discouragement.  

Then we will be oaks of righteousness, planted by the Lord.

We will rebuild the ruins and restore the deserted places.

We will renew ruined cities so that foreigners come near, find work,

and build their homes among us

and all wages will be faithfully paid.

Then joy will be ours.

Love and justice we be ours too.

It should makes us all smile that Luke omits Isaiah’s mention of “a day of vengeance”.

 

Jesus declares, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”   Jesus says to us here today, Today, this Scripture is fulfilled among us. Scripture rings true when the hungry are fed, the poor given hope, the broken-hearted bound up, strangers welcomed, debts cancelled, walls broken down, justice defended, people hired, good news shared, forgiveness offered, and the Lord’s favor offered to all.

 

So let us get going, and fulfill the Scripture, Let us Pray:

Oh, Creator, Christ and Comforter,

Come- sing your song to us,   

we lean in, hoping to hear of  the Year of Your Favor.

Come anoint, crown, wash us with faith, hope and love, 

so  that we do not grow weary and quit church, 

when we again tosses one of your prophets off a cliff.

We come listening and longing,

Woo us anew, so that worship becomes our custom and grace our routine.

Help us unroll the Scriptural scrolls and find our place,  

so that even today- the Scripture be fulfilled:

in our midst… and we might dare

heal the brokenhearted, feed the hungry, release the prisoner, rebuild the nations,

make peace,  preach hope,  practice love, and live justice. 

And  Your Divine melody might whistles anew in our hearts. Amen.

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