This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. It was also the third week of our four-week annual Stewardship Campaign. The gospel text was Luke 4:21-30.
So we continue to celebrate our fiftieth anniversary this year, a time when we look back at all the great things that we have done over the past fifty years. We will look back at how we have overcome obstacles, how we have remained faithful even amid challenges, how we have remained connected to one another no matter what came our way. We will look back with pride at our successes, and celebrate how God has been on our side.
As we should. Those successes are important, and God deserves all the praise for it.
However. If we are honest, when we look back we will see that it’s not all been rosy. If we are honest, we will see that it wasn’t all successes. There were times when we tried something and failed. There were times we failed by not trying something. There were times when we argued and fought about things that really weren’t important. There were times we did not treat each other well. There were times we were selfish, times we were greedy, times we were petty. Times we failed to welcome our neighbor. There were times when we saw the church as a social club, instead of the body of Christ. Times when we thought the church belonged to us, not to God. There were times we absolutely failed to trust in God. Need I go on? I don’t say this to upset or depress you, but simply to be honest. We have indeed done great things together. And we have also done lousy things together.
All the gifts God has given us over fifty years – we have used them wisely, sometimes. And sometimes we have not. We have sometimes been excellent stewards, and sometimes not.
Today is the third week of our Stewardship Campaign. Each week we’re looking at one of the four images in our anniversary logo, and seeing how it connects with our faith today, through the day’s gospel.
We’ve already seen the two images on the left, the bread and wine and the Bible. Today we’re looking at the image on the top right: the butterfly.
The butterfly is an ancient symbol of the church. It’s usually seen around Easter, because it’s a symbol of new life. Just as a caterpillar seems to die, and is buried in its chrysalis, so Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and so are we raised from the dead through him. Jesus Christ brings us new life where once was only death, and the butterfly symbolizes that. So today we’re talking about new life. Though you could be forgiven for not thinking so, given the way this sermon is going. And wait – it gets worse:
In this anniversary year, we’re also thinking about the future. We look forward to our future with hope. Or at least we try to. But if we are honest, don’t we wonder what the future will bring. Will there be a church here in another fifty years? Will it look like this? How can we hold on to what we have? How can we get back to how it used to be? Will we just mess it up again? Have we already messed it up too much? When we think about the future, it’s easy to miss the hope, easy to miss the new life, easy to see only death.
But God promises hope. So let’s look for it. Let’s go to the gospel reading. This is the continuation of last week’s reading. You may recall that Jesus was in the synagogue at Nazareth, and he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And all the people were so proud of Jesus. They said to one another, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? He’s one of us. A Nazarene who is preaching and doing miracles! Now we’re on the map.”
And Jesus could tell where the conversation was about to go. And he told them, “I know what’s coming next. You’re going to ask me to do miracles here. You think I’m one of you, and you think that I came back here to serve you.” There was an uncomfortable silence. Then Jesus continued, “But remember the drought and famine that happened in the time of Elijah. There were many widows throughout Israel, but Elijah was not sent to them. He was sent to a widow way out in Sidon, a foreigner, an outsider, and he fed her. And remember, in the days of Elisha, there were lepers throughout Israel, but Elisha was not called to heal any of them. He was called to heal Naaman the Syrian, a foreigner, an outsider.”
And the people were filled with rage and wanted to kill him.
Where did they get it wrong? How did they misunderstand Jesus so much that they wanted to kill him? I think – I think that maybe the problem was this: they saw him as one of their own. They saw Jesus as one of their own; they didn’t see themselves as one of his.
Jesus was not their property. Yes, he was raised there. But if he truly was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, then he was much something much more than their childhood friend. And Jesus told them through the examples of the widow of Sidon and Naaman the Syrian that God was not interested in rewarding childhood friends. Instead, God was interested in feeding the widow and cleansing the leper, interested in bringing new life, even if it was to outsiders.
And if the people of Nazareth had wanted to get behind Jesus and follow him in his mission to do this, I daresay he would have welcomed them. If they had seen themselves as his, his followers, his disciples, he would have brought them along and given them incredible work to do. But they didn’t. The people of Nazareth wanted new life from Jesus. But they wanted it on their terms. They thought of new life as something they could control. But that’s not what new life is.
New life means something completely different. New life means something so much better, and so much stranger, and so much more holy, than what came before. New life means a foreigner who receives healing. New life means bread falling from heaven. New life means water turning into wine. New life means what Jesus read from Isaiah:
“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
New life is messy and uncontrollable, unpredictable and surprising. Have you ever seen a newborn infant? New life is not something we choose to receive. When Christ promises that we will be born again, that’s not something we decide. Did you make a choice to be born the first time?
New life is precisely that: new. Something unpredictable and unprecedented. A butterfly doesn’t resemble a caterpillar at all. Nor do we when Christ brings us new life.
And new life is precisely what God promises us. Fifty years ago, we could not have predicted what the church would look like today. Despite our mistakes, despite our past failures and sin, there is new life here. God has done amazing things in this community, sometimes through us, and sometimes despite us.
That’s what the next fifty years will bring too. God will bring new life where there is death. New life to our community, our world. With or without us. Going forward, the church will not look like it does now. Or at least, if we follow where God is calling us, it certainly won’t. We have a choice. We can be like that synagogue two thousand years ago in Nazareth, and focus on ourselves, and think of new life as just more of the same.
Or, we can take a radical chance. We can look forward with hope to the new life Christ is promising. We can follow, and be part of that new life. Whatever that might look like. And don’t get me wrong. This is not a sneaky way of talking about some new program or new idea I have. Not at all. I don’t have any idea what new life looks like here. But I know that it’s what God has promised. And I know that it is good.
Looking back over fifty years, we have seen new life sprout and grow and flourish here. We have seen the caterpillar become a butterfly. Good news! We’re not done. The butterfly has wings to unfold. Let’s find out where they take us. I can’t wait to see.