I had the unique pleasure of giving a guest sermon at Brookside Community Church last Sunday, Jan. 23, 2021. Brookside was our partner for the PraXis wellness challenge last fall. [Sessions are due to return to Brookside as well as to St. Peter’s Church in Morristown next month. More news on that soon.]
I was very blessed to have been able to speak to the congregation at Brookside over Zoom. This sermon was my first time speaking to a congregation outside of school. I’ve excerpted some of the service below, including some of the introductions, the musical cues, and my sermon and benediction.
This was a lovely opportunity to speak to others. The style of this sermon was inspired by Tim Mackey, the pastor who baptized me and one of the two producers of the biblical explainer series, the Bible Project. I love Mackey’s very rigorous exegetic style of sermons when he was a pastor at Door of Hope in Portland [where my wife and I met]. I was also able to blend in theme of both Orthodoxy and Reformation theology. I was even able to include a little engagement with “New Age” spiritual themes as well. I hope you enjoy.
Order of Service, Brookside Community Church, UCC, 9:30 am, 1.23.22
Introduction to guest- (Betsy, interning pastor)
I’d also like to welcome Cornelius Swart as our guest preacher today. Pastor Nicolette is taking some well-deserved time off. She’ll be back with us next Sunday for worship. Cornelius is a lay Christian and recent graduate from the Masters in Public and Pastoral Leadership program at the Vancouver School of Theology at the University of British Columbia. As part of Cornelius’s grad school thesis, Brookside partnered with Cornelius for a 9-week Christian Wellness program during the fall. The program included fitness, mindfulness, and diet classes in the Christian spiritual tradition. This program returns to Brookside next month. Cornelius is originally from Mahwah, NJ, but has lived in Portland, Oregon, for the last 25 years. He’s a member of the Orthodox Church in America and splits his time between Holy Trinity, in Randolph and attending services here with his wife Jamie, who grew up in the UCC.
Blessing Song – “There is a Name I Love to Hear” verse 1
Introduction to Scripture – (Deacon Paul)
Today’s scripture reading marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
Jesus has just been baptized and anointed by the Holy Spirit as “my Son, with whom I’m well pleased.” The Spirit leads him into the wilderness, where he fasts and spends 40 days in prayer and meditation. Here he is tempted by the devil, who repeatedly challenges his identity as the Son of God. In today’s reading, Jesus returns to his childhood synagogue in Nazareth as the newly appointed Son of God. This doesn’t go well. This event is also in Matthew and in Mark, but only in Luke do we get such a detailed and dramatic account.
Scripture – Luke 4: 14 – 30 – (Deacon Paul)
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Musical Response “Arise, Your Light has Come” NCH 164 vs 1, 4
Reflection – (Cornelius)
Thank you so much for letting me speak today as a guest. This passage represents the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke, and it also happens to be my first public sermon. So I hope I can say something interesting. That should not be hard with a passage that includes “let’s throw Jesus off a cliff!” So, that’s pretty dramatic.
Usually, when people look at this passage, they talk about it in terms of the people of Nazareth questioning Jesus’s authority, his signs, and wonders, or they lack faith in him. But, I want to look at this in a different way. I want to talk about this in terms of God’s message and Christ’s mission of redemption from sin. And, sin is such a morally charged word in the West. I want to look at it a little differently and look at it in terms of a kind of spiritual debt. So, let’s look at this passage a little closer, keeping in mind that Luke has layers of meanings.
Let’s look at the whole cliff thing first. The parishioners in the synagogue get very mad at Jesus. Jesus proclaims that he has fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy– that God has anointted him. Which everyone actually seems to be ok with this. Then he quotes two situations from the lives of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. In these stories, the prophets didn’t help locals but instead went and helped foreigners. And it’s at this point that people get mad. And it’s the message that Jesus has come to help foreigners and not his hometown that sparks the anger.
This universal quality is very consistent in the gospel of Luke. Jesus often aims his message, not just at kith and kin, but to the foreigner. This means, not just people of other nations, but social outcasts, ethnic outcasts, immigrants— all types of foreigners. So right away, in this passage, we get the idea that Jesus’s mission is for all people and all nations.
Now his mission is about the redemption of sin. That’s central. But, this passage from Isaiah says, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he has been “anointed,” to “bring good news for the poor,” and “to proclaim release of the captives,” healing of the blind. There’s no mention of sin. But remember, Luke has layers.
Isaiah’s passage ends with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Many commenters would say Jesus is talking about the year of Jubilee. Does anyone know what that is? Just put yes or no in the chat box. Let’s just see if we are on the same page.
The Jubilee is mentioned in Lev. 25. It’s an event that is supposed to happen every 49 years. It begins after the day of Atonement. On this day of the Lord’s favor, all debts are forgiven, land is returned to its original owner, and indentured servants, slaves, and prisoners are freed. In the ancient world, much of this would have revolved around debt and poverty. At this time, debt was a huge problem. It’s not like today, when debts can be manageable, such as a home loan. Back then, people sold their land because they were in debt. They became servants to pay off debt. They went to prison for debt. The term redeemer means someone in your family who frees you from your debt. They pay your debt and free you from prison or get your land back for you. This promise of the Jubilee was a powerful hope. People wanted an individual redeemer to save them from their debts and a political redeemer who would reclaim their land, Judea, back from the Romans.
Does anyone here owe anyone money? Go ahead put it in the chat box! This is NJ we talk about money, right? Just put a round number in, you don’t need to do cents or anything. No. Joking. I have three mortgages. It’s true. You can just put in yes or no.
How about other kinds of debt?
Do you owe anyone an apology? Think about it.
Did you owe someone an explanation? Have you said anything to anyone recently that sort of got taken the wrong way or created an awkward moment?Do you owe anyone a favor?
Has someone ever done you a favor that is so great, you could never repay it?
I think you see where I’m going with this. The idea of debt isn’t just about money. And in that space, God comes in.
In the rabbinical tradition, sin is often seen as a debt to God. Aramaic was the language that Jesus spoke. Do we know that? So, yes. The Aramaic word, hov, means two things. It means sin, and it can also mean debt.
And we see a back and forth between the messages of the forgiveness of sin and debt play out throughout Luke’s Gospel [Lk 6:34-36, Lk.16:1-9]. In Luke’s Our Father prayer, Jesus says, “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” [Lk.11.4]
In Lk 11, the woman who baths the feet of Jesus with her tears is decried as a sinner by a Pharisee. Jesus immediately compares the two of them to people who have debts that have been forgiven. The Pharisee, presumably, lives fairly sinlessly and owes little to God. At the same time, the woman has a great spiritual debt to pay. But BOTH are forgiven. The greater the debt that is forgiven, the greater the gratitude, he says. For “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” [Lk. 747]
It’s funny idea, spiritual debt. We do yoga at PraXis, and in yoga, there is the concept of karma, a kind of spiritual credit and debit system. You work off your spiritual debts via good deeds, which takes many incarnations to work through. But, in Christianity, you do not work off your spiritual debts. They are just forgiven, in their entirety, through the love of God.
I still have to pay my mortgages. And I still commit sins. I still rack up new debt to my neighbor, my family, the foreigner, and the outcast, and yes to God. You can really never keep track of all your debts. As the ancient Christian prayers say, forgive me for my sins, “voluntary and involuntary, in ignorance and in knowledge.”
We can never know how much our actions impact the lives of others. For good, yes. But also for ill. We can’t keep our own scorecard. We do not know the end to all events in our lives. And this is why we must live like Christ and forgive others their debts. As Luke’s gospel says, we too must “love our enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” [Lk 6:35].
This is how a life in Christ is a spiritual Jubilee, Atoned for on the cross, in which all debts are cleared, and where this forgiveness of debt is passed along to our neighbors by us, the little anointed ones (Christians). And this is all being teased, being foreshadowed here, in very subtle terms, at the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, with his reading in Nazareth.
In PraXis, we practice mindfulness prayers. St. Ignatius gave the world one such prayer called the Examen. Each night, Ignatius asks us to quietly review your day. Is there someone who owes us a debt that we haven’t yet forgiven? Do we still owe someone an apology, an explanation, a favor? The Examen is a practice of “renewing of the mind,” [Romans 12:2] so that we can repent and change our hearts and pay our debts and forgive others as best we can.
In the end, forgiveness is a free gift from God. But our kind actions towards others is what God asks of us. Perhaps due it out of the fear of Lord, or out of love for God– out of faith, or perhaps, like the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus— out of a profound sense of gratitude.
For as it says at the end of Luke’s Gospel, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sin is to be proclaimed in his name to ALL nations…”
Pastoral Prayer & Lord’s Prayer (Betsy, interning pastor)
We ask this in the name of the Lord
Breathing Life, your Name shines everywhere! Release a space to plant your Presence here. Imagine your possibilities now. Embody your desire in every light and form. Grow through us this moment’s bread and wisdom. Untie the knots of failure binding us, as we release the strands we hold of others’ faults. Help us not forget our Source, Yet free us from not being in the Present. From you arises every Vision, Power and Song from gathering to gathering.
Receive now this benediction:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, we give glory, thanksgiving, and worship to you.
Help us, today, to contemplate what we owe to you and to one another— in the full knowledge that we been forgiven by beyond any measure, merit, or understanding. For “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (Jas 1.17). Such is your love.
So, in faith, charity, rational worship, and honest work, let us go forth and live as a blessing to our neighbors and to all we encounter. “Blessed be the Name of the Lord, from henceforth and forevermore.”