Archive for January, 2013

Inauguration Speeches

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Luke 4:14-21
Steve Hammond
January 27, 2013

Most of us heard or heard about President Obama’s inaugural speech this week. The crux of the comments about that speech it that it revealed who Obama really is. The disagreement is whether people like that Obama or not. It can be argued whether this was really some liberal manifesto or not, but it is being defined that way.

This passage we read from Luke today is kind of Jesus’ inaugural address. It sets out his platform for his time in office (so to speak). Most of the commentators head this section of Luke with something like Jesus’ Inaugural Sermon. Actually it’s hard to imagine this was his first sermon, ever. It’s just the first one we read about in Luke.

He’s at the synagogue in his home town. He’s asked to read the scripture. Not the scripture someone else had picked out, like Mary and I do, and then ask folk to read it. The custom was that the reader got to pick whatever scripture he (and it was he in those days) wanted to read. And Jesus picked this passage from Isaiah. Now here’ a liberal agenda for you.

Did the word poor come up in Obama’s speech the other day? I don’t remember him mentioning poor people. But Jesus sure did. “God has sent me to preach good news to the poor.” Imagine for a moment what good news to the poor might sound like. [Ask people what that good news might sound like. What are some of the headlines?] God does not want you to be hungry. Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you are outside the circle of God’s love and concern. God wants a movement that makes things better for you and your kids.

In that inaugural address Jesus also said that God had sent him to “announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” If you look at the rest of Luke’s story you realize that Jesus was serious about all of that, and on all kinds of levels. He actually did restore sight to people who were physically blind. But he also gave sight to the spiritually blind. He went around telling whoever would listen that God did not want folk locked up in any kind of prison, whether a prison of someone else’s or their own making. That’s still a message worth paying attention to.

And there was more. Jesus’s inaugural address got a whole lot better or worse depending on whether you voted for the guy or not. It wasn’t enough for Jesus to read a passage about the oppressed being set free. Jesus really goes off the charts when he continues reading that passage from Isaiah that talks about the favorable year of the Lord.

The favorable year of the Lord is a reference to the year of Jubilee, which you read about back in the book of Leviticus, of all places. The year of Jubilee, the favorable year of the Lord, is when all debts were canceled, and land that has been sold was returned to the families that originally owned it. Slaves were to be set free. Prisoners released. It’s a conservative’s nightmare. I mean they like to talk about liberty all the time, but this is not the kind fo freedom they have in mind. And there are quite a few folk in the liberal establishment who would have thought Obama was out of his mind if he had suggested anything close to something like this in his inaugural address.

Where did Jesus get all this stuff? Up until this part of the Luke’s story we don’t hear much from Jesus. We have stories about his birth, his baptism, the temptation in the wilderness where he does offer words of challenge to the tempter. But not much comes out of his mouth up to this point. Where in Luke’s story have we already heard something so over the top, offering such a radical view of what God wants for this world? From his mother when she goes to tell Elizabeth about the baby.

“My soul does magnify the Lord…God has shown strength with the power of God’s arm; and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty….”

Maybe the reason Jesus turned to the Isaiah passage that morning was because his mother read it to him, a lot of times. She surely was among the poor who were listening for good news. From that song she sang to Elizabeth you sure have to imagine that she was familiar the prophets. Lots of Momma’s have read Bible passages and stories to their kids. But it seems that Mary picked the ones that had a bit of a punch to them.

We read from Psalm 19 at the beginning of the service. Imagine how it might sound to a woman like Mary. “The law of the Lord is perfect reviving the soul. The decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” Again, listen to these words as good news to the poor and what they might hear in them. I think they hear something different than we often do. What if the Lord’s statutes and decrees and laws aren’t simply a bunch of rules and regulations, but they are about people being set free, about good news being preached to the poor? Jesus may well have gotten his material for his inaugural address at the feet of his mother.

It turns out that in Jesus’ inaugural message, like with President Obama’s, people not only made a big deal out of what he did say, but what he didn’t say. Commentators and legislators have been asking all week why didn’t the President mention this. Or they talk about what was, in their opinion, glaringly missing from his speech. There were some pretty strong feelings about what the President didn’t say.

The feelings weren’t as strong about the President, though, as they were for Jesus. By time Jesus got done, he was no longer the hometown boy who decided he was a preacher. If he is who the Spirit of the Lord was upon, they didn’t want to have anything to do with that. They were ready to throw him over the cliff. And not just because of what he said. There was something most of them were expecting to hear that he didn’t say.

I’m preaching again next week, so we will have to wait for what wasn’t in his inaugural address then. I mean the President’s inaugural speech is still being talked about, so I figure we can give Jesus another week. Like a Presidential inaugural address, Jesus set out some of his agenda that day, gave us lots to think about. And to this day some people like it, others hate it. But worst of all, lots of people, even in the church, ignore it. We are not going to let that happen.

To Dream the Possible Dream

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

1 Samuel 3:1-10, Mark 1:12-20
January 20, 2013
Steve Hammond

There is a story that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. departed from his prepared text at that famous rally in Washington DC, nearly 50 years ago. “Tell them about the dream,” the singer Mahilia Jackson reportedly said as they waited in the wings. Then, according to the story, Dr. King laid aside his planned speech and told us about his dream.

Those were tough days, and such a dream seemed too far fetched. It was just a few dreamers like Martin Luther King, Jr. who really believed that Jim Crow laws could be overturned and segregation be outlawed. He saw long before most of us the possibility that an African-American could really become President of this nation. But his dream went even deeper than that. He dreamt of a world where lines were crossed, barriers torn down, and hate overpowered by love. He dreamt of not only freedom for the oppressed, but for the oppressor, as well. He believed the power of non-violence was so much more than that of violence.

Where do dreams and vision like that come from? I think from people willing to dream them, people imaginative enough, people ready enough to dream big dreams. Dr. King knew that Jesus had big stuff in mind when he called people to seek the Realm of God. He learned from his study of the scriptures, particularly the prophets, that God wasn’t willing to settle for the things we settle for.

These were not pipe dreams, though. He didn’t have the desire to waste his time of dreams that were either too small, or too impossible. He wasn’t willing to sacrifice his life like a Don Quioxte pursuing the impossible dream. He was much more interested in the ones he knew were possible, though they seemed to impossible to so many, including many of us now. He dreamed of a world that could be, not simply one that ought to be.

It was from Sojourners founder Jim Wallis that I read the definition of a prophet that we use so much around here. A prophet, Wallis says, “is not someone who predicts the future, but contradicts the present.” That dream of Dr. King’s helped him contradict the present he and so many lived in. Things did not have to be the way they were. And if God didn’t want them to be that way, why should any of us? Martin King wasn’t just a truth teller, he was a God’s truth teller

We always need those dreamers, those who possess the prophetic imagination that exposes the lies of the day to the light of God’s truth. What we so often say when we talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. is that you can’t understand him if you think of him only as a great Civil Rights leader who took on the powers of racism. He was first of all, and most of all, a preacher. He was a man of God, a Jesus follower, who took Jesus so seriously that he became a Civil Rights leader.

He started out like we all do, like those men did that day in the story we read earlier. He was just sitting there when Jesus came along and said, “Follow me.” And look where he ended up, pursuing the possible dream.

I don’t know how many times, like Samuel, he heard God calling before he finally stopped and paid attention. But the prophets, the big dreamers, those who can practice holy imagination, finally do hear. And we can hear that call ourselves if we will only stop and listen, only imagine that God could be actually calling us. Often times it will take someone like Eli to help us to hear, help us to imagine what God wants for our lives and our world.

When Jesus walked up to those fisherfolk he wasn’t looking for people who would pursue the impossible dream. He was looking for folk who were willing to imagine the possible, to dream God’s dreams. To believe God was a God of life, and even the power of death could be broken. And he didn’t expect them, or any of us, to be like unto the prophets of old, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Martin knew that the dream was much bigger than him. He knew that everyone has their part in the dream, people to do some prophetic imagining on their own.

And heaven knows we need as much prophetic imagination as we can get. People can imagine flying planes into buildings, raining death from the skies through missiles, bombers, and drones. People can imagine the superiority of their own race or gender. They have learned that you can often do what you imagine you can do.

Jesus, though, is looking for the imagination of the prophets. Those who imagine justice and peace. Those who can imagine healing and wholeness and forgiveness in people’s lives. Those who can imagine God really does love us and loves our neighbors, as well.

It was hard to find the big dreamers in the years leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr. accepting that call at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church. I’ve been in that church. You can see the Alabama State Capitol Building from its steps. Sure there were folk here and there who had that prophetic imagination. But not long after that young preacher climbed into the pulpit he heard God calling him. And he could imagine a life for people, literally and figuratively, outside the shadows of the Alabama State Capitol Building.

Sounding like I think Martin Luther King, Jr. might sound if he were still alive today, Bruce Epperly writes this: “Many of us still have individual dreams, but I fear that we are losing our collective national dreams, visions of a great and imaginative nation, bringing the light of creativity, justice, and innovation to the world.
Our recent economic recession has constricted our imagination. Our highest values have been subordinated to the bottom line. We are afraid to take risks and to invest in the future, individually, corporately, and nationally. For some, only a small government with lower taxes can save us! For others, lowering taxes for the wealthy is the best a government can do! But, these visions are far too small for a great nation. Fiscal responsibility is essential in a family or a government, but without a dream, we may balance the budget but lose our personal and national souls.”
(http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Spirit-of-Martin-Luther-King-Cultivating-a-Holy-Imagination-Bruce-Epperly-01-14-2011.html)

When Jesus walked up to those folk on the shoreline, or called out to women and men he encountered along the way, and called them to follow him, he was inviting them to dream God’s future into existence. And God keeps sending us dreamers, some whose names are on everybody’s lips, others just known by a few of us, so we can dream with them, imagine God’s future together.

“Tell them about the dream,” Mahalia said to Martin. He did. He told them, he told us about the possible dream. Imagine that.

On the Road Again

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Matthew 2
January 6, 2013
Steve Hammond

Here they were, on the road again. In Luke’s Christmas story we read that Joseph and Mary had to make that journey to Bethlehem at the Empire’s behest. Journey’s weren’t easy then and, of course, Mary was pregnant. Joseph and Mary knew how many women died in childbirth and this wasn’t making it any easier. But they made it; the baby and Mary were okay.

Matthew’s story takes place a couple of years later when those strange travelers came from the East. It turns out they stirred up something that could cost Jesus and maybe all of them their lives. Sure the motives of the Magi were good, but their journey only led to more imperial entanglements for Joseph and Mary and Jesus. So they had to hit the road again.

And Joseph didn’t have to do any of this. He could have just walked away, like so many other men have, like my own father did. When the going got tough my father got going. But he didn’t bother to take his wife or any of his children. He wasn’t heard from again for 20 years, and only sporadically after that. His name was Joseph, too.

When it got tough for Joseph, though, when he first learned that Mary was pregnant, and when he found out that Herod was after them, Joseph put it all on the line. We talk about that silent night when the baby was born. But now it was a night of panic. And there was nothing holy about it. They got out of town in the nick of time. Joseph and his family became refugees, undocumented aliens in Egypt, of all places.

I can’t imagine this is what Joseph had in mind when he realized he wanted to marry that girl. They would settle down in Nazareth, raise their family, and make a decent living with his skill and hands. But here he was, an illegal in Egypt. And they were going to be there for as long as Herod was gunning for them. And who knew how long that would be.

Joseph does not get the press he deserves. There are all kinds of Christmas carols about Mary. But can you name me one where Joseph gets the kind of billing Mary gets? Not some 14th century plain song, but one we all know? The kind of carol the Mormon Tabernacle Choir would put on a Christmas album, or something you could hum along with in the grocery store.

I think Joseph deserves a lot more credit. But he also seems like the kind of guy who didn’t care. There were those angels and visions. He had a calling from God. He knew he was involved in something big, but had no idea how big. He knew that, as Kate Huey puts it in her UCC.org blog post that “anyone who could afford to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh [was] wealthy enough not to be in the habit of bowing down to little children in modest homes, in foreign lands.” But they did. And Joseph knew the baby had also gotten Herod’s deadly attention. He wasn’t going to abandon his wife and the baby. So they headed out to Egypt, not knowing exactly what God was up to, but Joseph decided he was going to go along for the ride and try to find out, no matter how it changed his life.

It turns out, we are offered the same opportunity. We may not have to head off to Egypt to save our skins, and we may have no better idea than Joseph what God exactly has in mind for Jesus. That Bethlehem baby offers us nothing but disruption. He is going to blow the whole thing off course and change our lives. And when you think about it, you don’t get a whole lot of that in most of our Christmas carols either. There is, indeed, a lot more going on than Joseph, Mary, or any of the rest of us signed on for.

It’s interesting that the lectionary passage for today was actually only about the visit of the magi. They always leave off the part about Herod going after Jesus and killing all those little boys. I guess they don’t want to ruin the Christmas story for us. But, that’s exactly why there is a Christmas story. It’s because of the Herods of this world, and so much else, that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. That’s some of the bigger stuff that’s going on. You can’t leave that part of the story out or you miss the whole thing.

That Herod would do such a thing was probably no surprise to Joseph. Being poor in the fringes of the Roman empire meant you got to not only see, but live the rawness of life. Things were hard enough for Joseph just living in that situation, but he was willing to take the risk of things being even harder because of his calling.

The wisemen went back to doing what they were doing. They simply returned home another way. But Joseph didn’t get to go back home. And maybe the fact that he was willing to leave his home behind for the sake of Jesus, trust God that much, is more miracle than some star appearing in the sky.

Over the centuries there has been a lot of speculation about the lost years of Jesus. There is not much in the bible about his childhood. What we do know, according to Matthew’s story, is that Jesus spent some of those years in Egypt. Israel and Egypt had a long hard history with each other, much as they still do today. But Jesus must have had a different picture of Egypt than most Jews. Instead of Egypt being the land of the enemy, it was the place of refuge for him. Maybe that’s why it was hard for him to call anyone an enemy.

What we know from the life of Jesus, as an adult, is that he had this incredible trust in God. It may well be that he picked up, at least, some of that trust from Joseph and Mary, who couldn’t have done what they did without having that same kind of trust in God themselves. They trusted that God was with them no matter how hard things got, and that Jesus was going to change things. It seems like Joseph believed the gospel of Jesus long before Jesus could put words to it himself. It seems like Joseph believed the gospel long before Jesus could put words to it himself.

Like Joseph, we all have a calling. And it has something to do with that baby born in Bethlehem, even though we have no real idea what that is all about. And we don’t know what kind of trouble that baby is going to get us into.

It’s good trouble, though. It’s the kind of trouble that brings light into this world, that turns the land of the enemy into a place of refuge. It’s the kind of trouble that comes when we trust God and God’s calling in our lives.

We are about to gather at the Table to remember Jesus. But I don’t think we can remember him without remembering Joseph and Mary, shepherds and Magi, disciples and children, people we read about in books or known personally, who have trusted God enough to let this baby disrupt their lives and hit the road again. What else are we going to do?