I delivered this homily before Church Council on September 15, 2015.
Homily Text: Luke 4:16-21
When I was 13 years old, a classmate of mine named Paul was distributing a hand-drawn picture of the inside of a cable box. You remember the cable box, right? If you had cable back then, you only had one choice, so everyone had the same cable box from the same cable company. And this drawing that made its way around the school illustrated the way in which you could twist a particular chip inside the cable box in a certain way, and if you did it correctly, suddenly you would get every single channel that the cable company offered—including all the pay channels like HBO, Showtime, and some others I won’t mention!
I’m not proud of what I’m about to say, but my older sister Susan and I opened the cable box and followed my friend’s drawing and instructions, and, voila!, it worked! Suddenly we had all the channels! So even then, I was showing potential as a future electrical engineer!
Well, our adventure in stealing cable lasted exactly one evening before my parents uncovered what we had done. To make a long story short, they wanted us to put it back the way it was. And we did. Or we tried. Turns out we broke the little prongs on the chip, which meant that we went from getting all the cable channels to getting none of the channels.
So the cable guy was called out. And I was worried because there were stories in the news about how illegal it was to tamper with one’s cable box, and I didn’t want my mom or dad to go to jail. So I was looking at this little monthly magazine that came from the cable company. And there was a blurb inside about how—if you call the cable company this month and report that you’ve tampered with your cable box, you will receive amnesty. And I’m like, “What is that? That sounds bad. So now I’m sure that my mom and dad are going to jail!” But I looked up the word in the dictionary, and it sounded like “amnesty” was a good thing—it meant they’d replace the box no questions asked, so long we called this month.
Whew! Off the hook! The guilt of my crime was removed! I was declared “not guilty.” I received grace. This magazine was declaring the “month of the cable company’s favor,” and I was the beneficiary, and I was so relieved! Presumably, if we had waited until next month—somebody in my family would be going to the slammer! That’s what was going through my 13-year-old brain.
I share this to give you a sense of Jesus’ startling announcement at the very beginning of his public ministry: God the Father had sent Jesus Christ the Son to “declare the year of the Lord’s favor.” Which was another way of saying that Jesus came to initiate a period of grace, during which people, by placing their faith in Christ, would receive mercy and forgiveness of sin, salvation and eternal life! Regardless what sins they had committed in their past. This was the “year of the Lord’s favor.”
And this is the period in which we’re living right now. And remember: Now that Christ has been resurrected, now that he’s ascended to the right hand of the Father, we the church are his body on earth until he comes again. Remember what Jesus said: “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” And he also said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
So this mission statement that Jesus announced in Nazareth during his first public sermon is one that we the church are to continue in his absence. And of course he’s not really absent at all, because he makes himself present through the power of the Holy Spirit. And we won’t just continue Christ’s ministry, we’ll expand it, because together, Jesus says, we can accomplish even more than Jesus could accomplish if he had remained on earth and not ascended to the Father.
So, this mission that Jesus announces, Hampton United Methodist Church, is our mission.
Now, churches tend to make one of two mistakes when it comes to these verses: Some churches “spiritualize” these verses completely, such that blindness is only spiritual blindness, bondage is only spiritual bondage, poverty is only spiritual poverty. And they think that by doing so, they’re off the hook when it comes to alleviating the suffering of people in the world.
But I don’t think United Methodist churches tend to make that mistake. They tend to make the other mistake: of interpreting Jesus’ words as being only about the very real physical and economic hardships that people in this fallen world face. And our job as Christians is to alleviate those “real-world” problems, while forgetting about or underemphasizing the spiritual part of Jesus’ mission statement.
As Methodist evangelists Eddie Fox and George Morris point out in their book Faith-Sharing:
The United Methodist Church shows tremendous proficiency and commitment when it comes to doing the deed of the gospel. We do the compassionate deed from the best of motives, and we do that deed with skill and commitment. However, we are reluctant to name the Name in whom we do the deed.
We are reluctant to name the Name in whom we do the deed.
That convicts me. How about you?
We must name the Name of the one in whom we do the deed!
A friend pointed me to a YouTube video of an interview with singer David Cassidy that took place this week on British television. It embarrasses my family how much I adore those Partridge Family records that he recorded with the greatest West Coast musicians back in the early-’70s. So it breaks my heart to say that in this now infamous interview Cassidy appeared to be drunk and in no condition for a television appearance—he’s famously struggled with alcoholism for many years, and it’s heartbreaking to see him like this. He’s also going through a divorce. And he just filed for bankruptcy.
The point is, Cassidy is a man who had everything! Even long after his teen idol days were far behind him, he was still living very comfortably with every possible physical need met and creature comfort provided for. But guess what? It wasn’t enough! He still needs his blind eyes to see… He still need to be released from the addictions which hold him captive… he still needs to be set free! He still needs to hear that this is the year of the Lord’s favor! In other words, he still needs Jesus! And we all do! We’re no different from David Cassidy in this regard, even if our own sins are less public, less conspicuous, less obviously self-destructive. We all need Jesus!
By contrast, think of those 21 Egyptian Christians who were beheaded by ISIS terrorists on a beach in Libya earlier this year. They were poor by our standards, yet they were rich in faith; they were literally prisoners, yet Christ had made them free; they were blindfolded as their captors led them to their place of execution, yet they saw the Lord clearly as they shouted, “Lord Jesus Christ!” moments before death.
You can’t die a death like that unless your life has been transformed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ! That’s what our world needs more than anything!
Church, this is our mission: We are anointed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed; and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor—while we still can… for this year of the Lord’s favor won’t last forever. Christ will return like a thief in the night. And when he does, God’s judgment and wrath will follow for those who haven’t trusted in the Lord for salvation.
So our mission couldn’t be more urgent!