“Are you in this with me?”
“Are you in this with me?”
January 27, 2019
As we enter our text from Luke this morning, all systems are go. Things are looking good. Jesus has been baptized and the Spirit has descended upon him. That same Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to face what needs to be faced internally before he is ready to face a world of hurt and brokenness. The Spirit led him around Galilee for an early tour and the people were loving him. He was on everyone’s must see/must hear lists! Now, we find him in his hometown in his home synagogue and the Spirit is empowering him and inspiring him to speak:
“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 let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
I bet you could have heard a pin drop in that synagogue. This was clearly a man of power. Something was happening! This is going to be good! But let’s pause…
Let’s pause, because it is the Sunday of our annual church meeting—which seems like it is a long, long way from that synagogue in Nazareth, right? This is the day when we think back and when we think forward. We ask our questions. We listen for God’s calling. So, why, on such a day, do we visit this text? I’ve been whispering the message to you for a while now. Have you heard it?
Jesus wasn’t the exception. Jesus was the example. Let me say that again. Jesus wasn’t the exception. Jesus was the example. He came to show us how to live, to embody the care and compassion and kindness rather than just talk about them. Rather than just giving us deep things to think, he sought to show us how to live the deepest faith possible by making choices in real time that responded to the needs of those standing right in front of us. Faith isn’t going to be what you think. Faith is going to be how you choose to live.
The first of those choices is already unfolding. If you want to be a person of faith, you will do everything you can to live in relationship to the Spirit. That may sound abstract, but it is not. Spirit is what we meet when we push below the surface of life, when we cease to just be one more reactive person, making reflexive choices in the bumper cars understanding of life where people claim that they had not choice other than to react to someone else’s worst moment by offering their own. Spirit meets us at the crossroads where everyday life and awe cross paths. The problem, of course, is that you have to be awake and aware and open to the possibility that there is way more to this life than you find when you are simply asleep at the wheel.
So, the first task is to wake up, to open your eyes and your heart and your mind, to entertain the possibility that you are walking in a world that is full of God’s presence. This will cost you your cynicism and your jaded outlook and your “Debbie or Donnie Downer” way of being in the world. It also costs the church it’s special status as the one holy place in this world. What it won’t cost you, though is the chance to be honest. We can tell the truth about what is broken in ourselves and in our world. The honest truth though is that if God is in our midst and knows all about us and all about our world, then it is likely that the Spirit’s main question is going to be, “If that bothers you, what are you going to do about that”
As a church, a huge part of our life together is about trying to open ourselves to God’s presence, to the power and the nagging call of the Spirit. There is a “you” whom God wants you to be. There is a church that we are called to become. We discern those things first by doing everything that we can to open ourselves to God’s presence. We worship through the seasons of the year in all sorts of places and in all sorts of ways, hoping against hope that this hymn or that prayer or the sermon or the gift of music on any given day might be what opens us up. We study Scripture. We share the joys and concerns of our lives. We learn and discern together in the hope that in the process, maybe, just maybe, we will learn to see God’s presence more clearly. Maybe we will come to a shared sense of what’s next…
That leads us back to our text. Clearly, Jesus is connected to the Spirit. He announces this as he reads the words we heard from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” These were very familiar words that would have just added to the excitement of the people in that synagogue. You see, they knew that this particular text from Isaiah promised two things: the situation of those who have generally gotten the short end of the stick in life is about to get a whole lot better and God is going to wreak havoc on the people’s enemies. Isaiah tells the people that soon the oppressors are going to be working for them, that they are going to prosper, that all the other nations are going to look at them and think, “Man…I wish we had a God like that!” God is about to get back into the business of smiting our enemies!
That’s what’s running through the people’s minds. However, that is not what Jesus has just said. Jesus leaves out the vengeful God part. Instead, Jesus says to them that things are going to get a whole lot better for the overlooked and the ignored. And then, while all the people are assuming that he must be talking about them and their big payoff for being the hometown folks in Jesus’ life, he looks them in the eye and says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” At which point, if you’ve put yourself into that scene, you realize that people must be looking around to see what has changed. It is like Jesus is the magician who has arrived at the culminating moment of his best trick but nothing happens. We’re not rich. All our problems aren’t gone. Jesus failed, right? No…Jesus just made his point in exactly the jarring, eye-opening way that Jesus seemed to love to make his points. It’s like he might have just screamed, “Wake up!”
The default setting of a human being is the question, “What’s in it for me?” This is the way that we enter this world as infants, screaming and kicking until we get what we want and then being content and loving once we get it. This is the way many people continue to function for the rest of their lives. These people assumed that Jesus was there to tell them what was in it for them. The truth is that whole host of people in churches for the last 2000 years have been more than happy to appeal to that level of functioning and answer on Jesus behalf: just give a little more or come a little more often or do what I tell you to do and you can be whole and pure and rich and get to heaven. That sells books and fills pews and church coffers but it is not Jesus’ message.
Jesus essentially says to us that when we ask, “What’s in it for me?” we are asking the wrong question. The real question that Jesus asks us over and over again is this: “Are you in this with me?” What Jesus is promising us is not an outcome but a relationship. Think about the examples that he offers us again and again. See that sick person? I’m going to care for them. How about you? See that mentally ill person? I’m going to try to help them. How about you? See that tax collector? I’m going to care for him and have dinner at his house. How about you? See that woman? I’m going to treat her like a full-fledged human being? How about you? What Jesus says to his disciples and anyone else who is willing to listen is that we are here to serve, not to be served, that given the choice, we should choose to go last rather than elbowing our way to the front of the line, that what should matter more than anything else is the satisfaction and wholeness that comes when we have recognized the needs of others and responded.
Let me repeat: the question is not, “What’s in it for me?” Rather, the question is, “Are you in this with me?” Jesus looks us in the eye and says, “We can do almost anything together. How about it?” Over and over again, God invites us to roll up our sleeves and get down to the messy business of caring about someone other than yourself or your tribe or your nation.
Let’s be honest here. At this point, Jesus hometown synagogue full of people, the folks who were so excited to hear what their guy, Jesus, had to say, start to get so angry that in a few minutes, they are ready to throw him off a cliff and kill him. It really is a crushing blow for a lot of folks to learn that there is some reason other than self-interest to care about faith: “If there’s nothing in it for me, then why not stay home and eat pancakes and read the Sunday New York Times?” The only answer is that someone might need me, that God might need me there. I might be just the right broken, piece of work of a human being to listen to someone in need and actually help. Or, this might be the moment that helps tune me to God’s presence for the week ahead, for the great unknowns that are waiting out there.
Here’s the thing: God’s promise which Jesus embodies and enfleshes and shows us is not that we will get everything we want. Rather, God’s promise which Jesus shows us is that we have the chance to be useful, to be helpful, to be a part of something far larger and far more lasting than ourselves. We are—each of us—a total piece of work, a broken down collection of “best of” and “worst of” moments. Who, if they really knew us, could really love us? God can and God does. In fact, God loves us so much that God wants people like you and like me to be a part of God’s work. God says to us, “If you are in, then I will be with you every step of the way.”
This truth should stop you in your tracks! This is the good news that the people in Nazareth and people ever since have struggled mightily to hear. On your best day and on your worst day, you are loved. And when your worst day comes, you are not suffering in the hands of a vengeful God who finally figured out what a fraud you were. No…you are being held and cared for by the God who has loved you all along. And that God will be whispering to you, “I bet even on a day like today, there’s someone around here to connect with, to care for, to love.”
I think this is the truth that is built into the culture of our church. We don’t do perfect here—that should be obvious, right? When angels and shepherds wander in the pageant, the pageant isn’t ruined. We see the presence of God. When we get stuck on a work trip project and it is hotter than we ever imagined hot could be, we look at the whole group and say, “Let’s think this through together.” When we are challenged by some issue in a meeting, we struggle mightily and get frustrated and try to keep listening but we remind ourselves that what matters more than winning or losing is the community that we share with one another. We care deeply but what we care most about in the end is seeing the face of God in one another. When we do such things—when we can hold onto that larger connection to the something more that is God’s presence and God’s calling—we catch a glimpse of God’s Kingdom. We see how the world would work if it worked the way that God intended.
So, we do what it takes to stay connected to God’s presence. Some of those things are church things and many of them are not. We realize that if God gave us a soul then we need to care for and feed that soul and not allow ourselves to walk through life starving for something more. And as we connect to that Spirit, we feel shockingly grateful to realize that God not only loves us but wants us to be a part of the work that matters in this life. Instead of walking through life with great resentment for all the things we will never get and for the person that we’re never going to get to become, we feel the joy and gain the perspective that come when we realize that God picked us to be a “part of the team.”
Then, we roll up our sleeves and go to work. We go places that we would rather not go: the PADS shelter in Zion; the food pantry in North Chicago; some place called Tuscumbia in Missouri. We care for people for whom we would not otherwise care: that homeless guy who smells bad but does have that nice smile; that veteran in Missouri who is just jittering with PTSD but he got that way serving the rest of us; that mentally ill person who through no fault of his or her own just cannot be like everyone else and play by all the rules. God sends us where we are needed, not where we want to go. God asks us to care for folks we would otherwise overlook and ignore. And when we rise to such callings, we feel whole. We feel the peace that comes with doing something rather than nothing, with doing something together, rather than just on our own, and with doing something entirely imperfect but completely sacred.
It’s 2019 folks…let’s keep on being the Union Church!