Sunday, January 18, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "South Africa Rising"

Luke 4:16-21

Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, 19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” (Common English Bible)

“As One Having Authority: Sermons that Changed the World,” Week One

“South Africa Rising,” Luke 4:16-21

When I was in South Africa in the summer of 2006 on a mission trip sponsored by the Disciples’ overseas missions arm, Global Ministries, my fellow missionaries and I stopped at the Hector Pieterson memorial in Soweto, one of the impoverished suburbs of the big city of Johannesburg.  Upon the site where black South African students rioted against apartheid in 1976 now stands a beautiful engraved memorial to a young boy who was killed in those riots—and whose image is now as indelibly carved into the collective memories of a great many people as, say, the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching in the capital, or the image a young black man and a white police sergeant tearfully embracing one another at the protests after the homicides of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

This lasting image in South Africa is of this young boy, Hector Pieterson, his body carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo as Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, rushes alongside them.  In the land of another country that has known so much grief as a result of a singular systematic injustice, the Hector Pieterson memorial, with the enduring image of Hector himself, acts a burning bush of sorts, akin to the burning bush that called out for Moses’s attention in Exodus.  And here, the memorial stands as another burning bush calling out to be heard by all those who come across it within the urban wilderness of a city.

And in this way, the dead do speak to us.  They speak and they shout, they sing and whisper and exhort, and they call out to us to this day.  It is why we read their words and hear their stories.  And it is why I have chosen this new sermon series, on how those long dead in the Bible continue to speak to us as ones having authority through their words and their sermons.

This is a new sermon series to go along with the new year, and it will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the church season of Lent.  For a while now, I have wanted to talk to all of you about the meaning and significance of preaching, and this series allows me to do exactly that.  The title for this series comes from the assembled crowd’s reaction to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew says that they were astounded that He taught them as “one having authority,” rather than one of their temple authorities.  So…how do we teach one another as one having authority?  That’s what we’ll be working on together, and each week for the next five weeks, we will be talking about one of the many significant sermons that are given in the New Testament: the Sermon on the Mount, Peter’s Pentecost sermon, Stephen’s farewell speech before his martyrdom, and Paul’s address to the Areopagus.  But we begin this series by looking at Jesus’s first sermon in His ministry as documented by Luke in his Gospel, and it is appropriate that we do so on the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day because this resounding call for justice from Isaiah 61 that Jesus preaches on is King’s message through and through, just as it is as well the message of equality movements everywhere, from the civil rights movement here in America to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

What I think we sometimes sanitize from our memories is that these larger-than-life figures who are now universally revered like King and like Nelson Mandela is that they were at one point demonized as well.  And what happens next in this passage from Luke 4 ought to tell us a great deal about how divisive Jesus likewise was too.

They tried to run him out of town and push him off of a cliff to His death.

Meanwhile, we have tried to punish and discredit religious teachers when they have gotten up on their pedestals and reminded us of how woefully short we have fallen of God’s justice.  King was, among other things, arrested, imprisoned, and condemned as a communist, and Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island by the apartheid government of South Africa.

And we did those things.  We were the synagogue crowd in Nazareth that eventually tried to, literally, throw Jesus overboard.  We may like to claim these civil rights heroes as our own today, but they were not, and not, our own.  They do not belong to us until we repent of what we did to them.

Again, similarly, Jesus does not belong to us until we repent of what we did to Him—of casting stones at Him, discrediting Him, ultimately of crucifying Him, all because His message was so threatening to the world we had built up that we could not tolerate His presence and His message any longer.  He had to go.

To be brutally honest, I don’t know if sometimes we wouldn’t try to do the exact same thing today if Jesus came back in this moment.

Luke 4—and by extension, Isaiah 61—is such a difficult passage to preach on for that reason.  It reminds us that someone we desperately want to be universal—Jesus—was not, is not, treated that way.  It reminds us that we are still sinners and hypocrites, ready to sit at His feet and learn from Him one moment, and prepared to chuck Him down the canyon with Wile E. Coyote the next, even though what Jesus is ultimately proclaiming—the year of the Lord’s favor—is a reference to the Jubilee Year from the Torah, in which all land is returned to its original owner, all slaves are freed, and all debts forgiven, all things that Jesus’s original audience of impoverished working people certainly needed, just like the racial and social justice King proclaimed.  Both were needed things, but both were rejected initially, as were their messengers.

It is probably what we end up doing with all of our heroes at some point.  King was—and is—no different.  Almost universally revered today, we still mostly sit at his feet and learn from him on this weekend when we ponder him for a moment or three, and maybe for another day or two in February as a part of Black History Month, but nevertheless, even the most influential teachers tend not to always pop up in our heads when we need them to the most.  We tend to drown their voices out in the moment of truth.

I think that’s why the synagogue crowd tried to kill Jesus.  Rather than listen to His voice in this passage here today, they drowned out what He had to say—that the promise of Isaiah 61 is fulfilled in Him, that in Him and through Him, there would be good news for the poor, sight for the blind, freedom for the prisoners, and liberty for the oppressed.  It is a promise for places like South Africa, like Jim Crow-era America, like Biblical Israel where people still toiled along in the ranks of the hurt and the downtrodden and the cast out.

Yet it is also a radical promise, a promise that runs counter to every way in which the world works.  So Jesus could not be tolerated, any more so than King or Mandela in their days. He had to go, to be disposed of, as did they.  
That is why things like Martin Luther King Day matter to us, and should matter to us, even if we think they don’t; because each of us, in our own way, needs this promise that Jesus proclaims of freedom, liberation, and wholeness, even if this world is not, or ever truly will be, ready to hear it.

But Jesus is gone—He was crucified, resurrected, and ascended into heaven, as has, in turn, King and Mandela.  The dead may not speak as we speak, but that does not mean that they do not speak at all.  It means that we are far too often deaf to their voices, voices which we are not used to hearing, no matter how much practice we may have.

Yet transcend our deafness they sometimes still do.  Mandela did it as President of South Africa, the first of a South Africa risen out of apartheid.  King did it when he thundered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 that he had a dream.  And most important of all, Christ does it in every word He speaks, every miracle He performs, every deed of power He puts forth in the Gospels.

In this way, this Christ who begins His public ministry in this story will change the world.

As must we all who dare to call ourselves Christians, followers of this Christ.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 18, 2015

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