Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany February 3, 2019

If you are a football fan this is a big day. You are excited about watching the big game, Super Bowl 53, Patriots against the Rams. Some football fans really get into the game and become walking encyclopedias of information. Did you know the first Super Bowl—not yet called that—featured a lopsided Green Bay Packer victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, 35 to 10?  Packer’s quarterback Bart Star completed 16 of 23 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns. But did you know that a player named Max McGee expected to see little play time because he was the back up to the starter, Boyd Dowler. The night before McGee stayed up pretty well all night and took in the Los Angeles social scene, happily partying the hours away. But surprise of all surprises, Boyd Dowler was hurt early in the game, and McGee was called—but how would he play without much rest and with somewhat of a hangover? Well, the stats tell the story: he caught seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. As you can tell he did extremely well for someone not expected to be called into the game.

For many churches across the United States this is another SOUPER BOWL, not featuring a football and big money paid to star athletes, but a can of soup and money raised to help feed the hungry in the United States. The movement is called the SOUPER BOWL of CARING, and it began humbly 29 years ago with a prayer from a single youth group: “Lord, even as we enjoy the Super Bowl game, help us to be mindful of these without a bowl of soup to eat.” The SOUPER BOWL has it stats too: last year Pioneer Lake raised $301 to overcome hunger. However our best year was three years ago when the church raised $1,142. Nationwide, in the 29 years of SOUPER BOWL, $143 million has been raised for local charities across the country. For the SOUPER BOWL of CARING there is not first string or second string, we are all starters for the challenge to tackle hunger and poverty. When you get right down to it, the football Super Bowl is a game, a form of entertainment millions will enjoy. But the SOUPER BOWL OF CARING is not a game, but a game-changer for many.

Nicholas Kristof is a Pulitzer Prize author and opinion writer for the New York Times. Around the first of the year he wrote a memorable column with the title, “Why 2018 Was the Best Year in Human History!” In part he wrote, “The big news that won’t make a headline and won’t appear on television is that 15,000 children died around the world in the last 24 hours. But in the 1990s, it was about 30,000 kids dying each day.” He was writing about deaths due to poverty and malnutrition caused diseases. It wasn’t Kristof’s intention to ignore the 15,000 children who die each day—that is horrible and the number still too high. But the point he wanted to make is that there has been genuine progress in overcoming want and hunger in the past twenty years. The media are busy covering the horror stories of wars and tragedies which give the impression that matters of poverty are getting worse. Overlooked is the good news of actual progress being made. So Kristoff concluded “There’s plenty still to fret about. But a failure to acknowledge global progress can leave people feeling hopeless and ready to give up. In fact, the gains should show us what is possible and spur greater efforts to improve opportunity worldwide.”

I like that columnist Nicholas Kristof spurs us to action out of hope instead of guilt. But after hearing the gospel for today, the day at the synagogue did not seem to end all that hopefully. What we heard today is actually part 2 of a lesson that began last Sunday. A week ago we heard Jesus announce his mission: He was empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the poor; release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and declare the year of the Lord’s favor. Jesus told his hearers that those words from Scripture were being fulfilled in him. All was well with the congregation until Jesus kept talking. Jesus knew what was on their minds when he said “You will say, ‘do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did in Capernaum.” Jesus was not swayed by their praise when he said “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” As a prophet Jesus told the people what they did not want to hear, but needed to hear. He gave well known examples from the Scriptures about the famous prophets Elijah and Elisha, bringing healing, mercy, and compassion to people who were not from Israel. They were Gentiles. They were not people like them as far as nationality and religion were concerned. The result was an explosion of rage. They wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff, but Jesus passed through the midst of them and got out of Nazareth.

I wonder if Jesus was your guest preacher today, in the flesh, would some of you become beside yourself in anger with what he would preach. We wouldn’t like it if Jesus challenged our lifestyles, as one hymn says “rich in things and poor in soul.” We wouldn’t like it if Jesus challenged our politics often decided upon by our own self-interest instead of real concern for the least and lowly. I think Jesus would really get blood boiling when he would challenge what we may think about immigrants, people with disabilities, drug addicts, alcoholics and people who are different from the so-called mainstream. We can be disdainful without really knowing the truth about people. No, not all immigrants are criminals; no, people with disabilities are not inferior to so-called able-bodied; no drug addicts are not junk. A disturbing book I just finished reading is tilted “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that addicted America” by Beth Macy.  She told about a doctor who wanted to set up a drug-treatment center in a solidly middle-class community in Tennessee. But he was met head on with strong resistance. People yelled and screamed at him. But patiently he tried to explain the science of addiction—that it was a chronic brain disease, and relapses were to be expected. Someone then shouted “Just how many chances are we supposed to give somebody?” The man making the presentation knew he was in the Bible Belt, just looking out one window of the community center he could see four church steeples. The Bible belters no doubt knew the story of Peter asking Jesus how many times he should forgive an offender, suggesting seven times. But Jesus gave another answer, and that was the answer he gave to the people at the center….how many chances are they to give someone,– not seven chances, but seventy times seven.

Jesus challenged people not because he was a trouble-maker, but as God-in-the-flesh; God who is love. We heard the beautiful text of 1 Corinthians 13, often heard at weddings and called the “The Hymn of Love.” But actually the context had nothing to do with weddings. Paul wrote it for a conflicted congregation where some where boasting about their spiritual gifts. Paul wrote that spiritual gifts are for the common good. But he really hit the nail on the head when he said “Even if I speak in the tongues of angels and have all prophetic powers, even if I have faith to move mountains, and give away all my possessions to help the poor, if I have not love, I gain nothing, I am nothing. We give our gift not out of self-publicity and pride, but from gratitude and humble surrender to the love of God. Love comes from God. Love, down to earth and seeking the lost and beaten, is what we see in Jesus. Sacrificial love, in what we see and what we receive from Jesus who went to the cross for us. The lesson said “Love is patient”, a word in the original language that means “long desire or long suffering.” Often it is the word used to describe God’s feelings toward us. As Paul wrote ‘we are fully known’—all our sins, sufferings, and sadness—and God desires us to know we are his precious children, and God revealed in Jesus as one who suffers with us. Through the Holy Spirit, the love of God inspires love in us, not for show, but sacrifice, not sentiment, but commitment, not my own creation, but inspired by Christ who lives within me

Last week on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe” recording star Michael Franti was a guest.  My ears instantly perked up because he is the nephew of Alice Leno, whom many of you know. He sang a song “Flower in the Gun”. The lyrics may not sound as optimistic as Nicholas Kristof’s column about 2018 being the greatest year in human history. The verses sing about “all the hate that’s standing in the way”. But then the chorus sings, “We could be the healin’ when you’re feeling all alone. We could be the reason to find the strength to carry on in a world that so divided, we shall overcome we could be the healing, we can be the flower in the gun.” So on this SOUPER BOWL SUNDAY, as we donate dollars to overcome poverty, donate cans of soup for Headwaters Pantry, may it not be an act of ‘going through the motions”. But may it be inspired by love, the love of Jesus for us and in us, that sets us in motion, sets the church in motion, so we could be the healing when you’re feeling all alone, and be the reason to find the strength to carry on.”