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Sermon for January 15, 2017

Pastor Anna V. Copeland

First Parish Church, York, ME

Last week I received a distress signal from one of my friends who lives in a southern state. She copied me on a string of social media communications between people who lived in her neighborhood. Some of her neighbors she knew, and some she did not. All lived within six blocks of her home.

An incident had taken place that rocked the neighborhood. It seems an unfamiliar van had pulled into her subdivision, and three people got out of the truck, wearing FEMA jackets and carrying clipboards. They were assessing damage on behalf of the Federal Government following the coastal flooding that destroyed homes and wiped out communities from the Carolinas down the eastern coast of Florida.

One of the residents of the community apparently came out of their home and challenged the only African American in the group regarding what business she had in the neighborhood. She identified her work and her mission on behalf of FEMA, and the resident unleashed an angry racial epithet, threatening to hurt her if she didn’t leave.

Deeply distressed, she fled back to the FEMA office and reported the incident to her supervisor. When an eyewitness first reported this on the neighborhood network, the neighbors sat for a bit in shocked silence inside their homes. At that point, it was unclear whether anyone would say anything, or assume it was just too bad, but none of their business.

One neighbor wrote “shame on you” to the unnamed neighbor who verbally assaulted the girl, and everybody piled on.

Then a remarkable thing happened. By the end of the day, forty people rose up with clear, unflinching language. “This is not who we are. This behavior is unacceptable. This does not represent what we believe or how we treat one another. We are committed to treating everyone with dignity and respect. We will work together to make sure this never happens again.”

All forty letters were sent to the young black woman who had been verbally assaulted, with a letter of apology by the neighborhood association. And then the forty neighbors said to one another, knock it off. We’ve lived here for twenty years of more, we honor and respect visitors, and we honor and respect one another.

My friend felt so hopeful by this. She felt relieved by the humanitarian convictions and courageous actions of her neighbors that made the world a little safer that day, for everyone.

Jesus got himself in deep trouble when he confronted the silent agreement of his hometown neighbors to do nothing when community leaders were less than faithful.

He stood up to preach for the first time, and they all murmured their approval at first. Isn’t that Joseph’s son? Isn’t that the boy from down the block who played with our kids when they were children? We know him; he’s one of us. They liked how he read the scroll, and the prophetic word from scripture.

But then he told them that God’s gracious mercy was going to pass over them. Like communities of the chosen people in earlier generations, Jesus reminded his neighbors and the friends of his Dad Joseph, that God’s special favor goes to people who do God’s will. He reminded them that God gave them as chosen people every opportunity to do the right thing, but if didn’t want to stick their neck out for their neighbors, God would move on to people who would. Their Synagogue would become a museum, or a mausoleum. You can imagine how uncomfortable everybody then became.

We don’t know what incident had happened in Jesus’ hometown, but as soon as Jesus preached this challenge, his neighbors wanted to get rid of the messenger. They argued with him after worship and tried to nudge him off the nearest cliff. After he slipped away through the crowd unharmed, we can only imagine how they started pointing fingers at one another, hot to know who among them had started the fuss.

Jesus message was simple. God will have God’s way with the world with or without us. If we want to experience God’s gracious compassion and mercy, our participation is required. If God can’t work out God’ purposes through faithful insiders, God will move on to the outsiders, the foreigners, the lost and vulnerable.

More than 100 years ago, international statesman Edmund Burke wrote these words: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

The gospel brings good news to the broken hearted, the sick the imprisoned, the lonely and the lost. Jesus came to comfort the afflicted, to bear our burdens and to share our griefs. But even as he came to comfort the afflicted, he came also to afflict the comfortable.

Jesus warned us that it isn’t enough to worship God on Sunday if we disrespect our neighbor come Monday. He surprised the insiders who thought they had a free ticket to the kingdom of God by saying to them: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 7:21

Watch out for fake Christians! This is the kind of warning Jesus would have issued, but for the fact that there weren’t any Christians in his time. The word was first used a generation after Jesus’ death to describe those women and men who committed themselves to follow the way of Christ.

Jesus spoke often against hypocrites, against people who claimed to know God and to love God but who exploited the poor and ostracized outsiders. Jesus was looking for people of conviction, who trusted what God had done for them and would yet do for the world God made. He was looking for people of courage who would put their money where there mouth was supposed to be and whose actions followed.

Here’s the great thing. Both the news that God comforts the afflicted, and the news that God afflicts the comfortable is good. We know it’s good news that God comforts the afflicted. We’re afflicted often enough. We come to church to hear the comforting promises of God that everything’s going to be all right for us and for all who suffer, and then we go home buoyed with hope and equipped with faith for another day.

It’s also good news that God afflicts the comfortable. Our every small action for good, compounds with every other loving act, of every unseen neighbor around the world. Our small acts of faithfulness create a sea tide of transformation that may not be reflected on the morning news, but nevertheless initiates God’s good news for all people.

When we bring the baby Jesus home with us from the manger of Christmas, and we commit to a life-long relationship with him, he grows up to point us from despair to hope.

 

This is God’s good news indeed. In the recently published “Book of Joy”, an interview with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, they talk about God’s will for this human journey from despair to hope. They recall together the atrocities of our time: 9/11, the humanitarian crises of Syria and the Middle East, the brutal murders of Blacks in South Africa before the fall of Apartheid, the unspeakable inhumanity of humanity through our capacity for violence that makes headline news every morning.

Desmond Tutu reminds us that God made us for good, and created within us a remarkable capacity for compassion. He describes a time when a young black girl was brutally murdered in his community. The parents whose lives had been torn apart, turned their despair to hope by starting a non-profit to help the people in the township where their daughter was killed, to improve the difficult circumstances that led to their hopeless violence. They even employed the men who had killed their daughter when they got out of prison, bringing healing to a community through their compassion.

Every day millions of parents do the right thing with their children, thousands of schoolteachers support their learning, police officers and soldiers bravely and respectfully protect their community. You have only to choose one act of kindness and that ripples out across the universe for eternity. This is the will of God. It is sufficient.

When the last candle of Christmas dims, and the evergreen wreaths have gone to dust, the baby Jesus we brought home with us from the manger grows up. He leaves his muddy boots at our door and invites himself to dinner. His love for us is so compelling that we can’t NOT do the right thing for our neighbor as God as always done the right thing by us.

That God can be so tricky. God’s story always ends with a surprise. When we bring Jesus home with us at Christmas he grows up to invite unexpected guests to follow him. Suddenly we discover the young African American FEMA worker, and also the racist bigot sitting awkwardly at our table. They are both the faces of Jesus, God’s beloved children now all grown up.

God trusts us in Jesus’ name to serve them and to love them as we would our own self, our own flesh, like our own brand new and vulnerable grandbabies like Dashiell Maverick Heartson, just 24 hours young.

Jesus ministry started small, at worship down the street from his house in his hometown. Next week when we return, we’ll hear what happened next. After Jesus left home, he called his first disciples to follow him. We’ll hear his invitation to participate in God’s will through simple acts of compassion that change the world.

But just for today, we remember how God’s story through Christ began. “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, and 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.

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.”

He told the people that God’s word had been fulfilled in their hearing. This is the word of the Lord. May God’s word comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Amen