Sermon for July 4, 2021 from Pastor John

Sermon for July 4, 2021

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     Happy Fourth of July, our Independence Day remembering the signing of the Declaration of Independence 245 years ago. It is a day to celebrate this nation of ours, this country we love. Now that is a serious statement for love of country means commitment to the great statement of the Declaration, that all are created equal in the sight of God, their Creator. Recently I read of a pastor in Baltimore, Rev. Frank Lance. He is the pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church. He used to be a computer programmer and as he said, “made lots of money. But I did not feel fulfilled.” He switched careers and became a pastor. He also is involved in a non-profit organization that works to establish parks and playgrounds and sponsors summer camps for disadvantaged youth. But now he is angry. He is angry about the closing of a Target Store in a largely African-American neighborhood in the city. When the store opened it provided good-paying jobs with benefits. It provided a grocery and pharmacy as well as the usual dry goods. But then the Target company decided to close the store claiming it was no longer sustainable. Pastor Lance and other community leaders lobbied Target and the Baltimore city council to keep this important retail outlet open but to no avail. A store that once served the community now sits empty, all boarded up. As he drove by the empty building Pastor Lance said “I don’t want to gloss over the problems in this area, but if you are really interested in equity and justice, you would figure out how to make that store work.” Frustrated by what he sees as roadblocks to equity and justice he said of his change of careers, “Maybe I made a mistake.”

In the gospel reading I wonder if Jesus thought it was a mistake to come home. But home he came and on the Sabbath he taught in the synagogue, the gathering place for people to hear the Word of God and pray. At first Jesus received rave reviews. This was in keeping with what others were saying in their towns and villages, marveling how Jesus taught with such authority. So the hometown crowd, the people Jesus grew up with, people he played with as a child, complimented him on his wisdom. They exclaimed “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands?” Jesus’ fame had preceded him and the people no doubt had heard about his power to heal the sick and raise the dead.

But then the mood took a turn in the other direction. In one breath they praised his wisdom and authority but in the next breath they questioned it, thinking, “Wait a minute, we know who this man is. He is Mary’s son. We know all his siblings. And we know he is a carpenter, a blue-collar worker like the rest of us. Then the text said, “They took offense at him.” Maybe they thought Jesus was showing-off, as if he was better, acting like a celebrity. The hometown folks were scandalized by Jesus. Maybe they thought he should stay home and help his poor mother and family make a living. The question they asked, “Where did he get all this?” reminds us of the earlier opinion of the religious authorities that through Satan Jesus got the authority to cast out demons. And they could not get past his humble origin, “isn’t he just a carpenter. Didn’t we hire him some time ago to build a shed, and now he comes and teaches us the Scriptures?” Jesus was roundly rejected. Do you think Jesus was frustrated and even furious?

No, Jesus was not surprised quoting the proverb about prophets being received with honor, except in their own hometown, and sadly even among his own kinfolk. Earlier Jesus scandalized his own family. When they asked for him Jesus replied “Just who is my family, everyone who hears the word of God and lives by it is my mother, brother, and sister.” In his own hometown Jesus could do no deed of power, except he laid his hand on a few sick people and cured them. Jesus was not angry but was amazed; he could not help but be astounded at their persistent unbelief.

It can be frustrating being a person of faith in God. Just think of the Psalm today asking for God’s mercy saying “we have had enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” It can be frustrating for the poor, the homeless and hungry to be treated with contempt whether by individuals who criticize and look down upon them or by government inaction and program cuts.

Think of the reading today from the prophet Ezekiel. It will not be a comforting calling speaking the Word of God because the people are a rebellious bunch….all of the house of Israel will not listen to you because they have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” And again think of Jesus, leaving is hometown of Nazareth, where he could do no deeds of power, any healings or exorcisms. In their unbelief the townsfolk avoided him.

But giving up was not an option. The Psalmist, frustrated over the arrogance of the powerful and wealthy did not shut the door on faith, but ever turned to God seeking mercy. Have mercy, Lord, and heal my frustration with the calm of your presence and peace; have mercy, Lord, and heal any hate-filled thoughts with the truth of your love for all. Have mercy, Lord, and encourage me to put my trust in you, and for your will to be done.

The Lord would not allow Ezekiel to give up. God warned about the rebellious people, but told Ezekiel don’t be afraid of their words, or their looks. When they sneer at you or look at you as if you are out-of-touch with popular society, don’t be deterred. The Lord told Ezekiel “Stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you….and when God spoke, God’s spirit entered into me and set me on my feet.” I love that passage! When we have failed, whether it be with one’s work for the church, or in another area of life, it can be like we have fallen flat on our faces. We can be defeated, faulted, and discouraged. But God says, “Stand on your feet; I want to talk to you.” And God sends the Holy Spirit to raise us up. The Holy Spirit gently reminds us that failures do not define us, but what does is our identity that we are beloved children of God. Jesus went to the cross for our salvation: the forgiveness of sins, and the good news that God is for us and not against us. In other words, whatever is against you remembering who is for you, who is in your corner, who is by your side and on your side. We are a resurrection people: life the way it is does not rule out times of defeat and despair, but God wants to talk to us, and raise us up so we continue to live as people of faith.

Just think of the apostle Paul in the second reading today. He was under attack by a congregation that said that although he wrote well, he was a lousy speaker and ugly. Others, the ones Paul called “super-apostles” thought they were better. In the reading today Paul spoke of special, private revelations, even being caught up into paradise. But to keep him from being too elated, too proud of his spiritual credentials, Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh, a “messenger from Satan” to torment him. Paul did not specify what this “thorn” actually was, and there has been guesses like poor eyesight or seizures. Anyway Paul prayed and prayed that he might be relieved from this affliction but he heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So now to everyone’s surprise Paul said he will all the more boast of his weaknesses, so the power of Christ may dwell in me….for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Why would Paul boast of weaknesses? We usually try to hide or deny weaknesses and certainly not boast of them. His weaknesses, his limitations brought him to the cross of Jesus, and an unlimited supply of love and forgiveness. In another letter Paul wrote that the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Paul was referring to the mission of Jesus, the mission that led him to the cross. The weakness and death of the cross reveals the power of God’s love, love for sinners, love for all of us, imperfect people, love that gives us the gift of salvation, a gift to be received wholeheartedly by faith.

In her book “Nomadland” author Jessica Bruder tells of people who have lost homes due to loss of work and economic downturn. They have turned to living out of trailers and vans, becoming a culture of nomads, on the road and finding temporary jobs to pay for their expenses. She tells of a biker turned pastor named Mike Hobby and his wife Linda. They experienced homelessness first hand; a medical crisis bankrupted them since they had no insurance. People may have judged them total failures. But then they heard of Jesus who makes it his work to raise the fallen. Pastor Mike founded “The Church of the Isaiah 58 Project”. That name for a church does not exactly roll off the tongue, but then read the 58th chapter of Isaiah: in part we read, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday, the Lord will guide you continually.” They started with a soup kitchen to help the hungry but it has now grown into a program that serves thousands of meals to elderly and homeless folks.

We celebrate today the birth of our nation we love, founded on the principles of equality, equity, and justice for all. But we know such compassionate goals can be thwarted by the powers of greed and selfishness. The church and its work can appear to fail. But in our times of weakness we find strength in the power of Christ, Christ who lifts us up with the power of his steadfast love.

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