Not Just Inside
By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
GLORY TO THE FATHER
AND TO THE SON
AND TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING
AND WILL BE FOREVER, AMEN.
As some of you know, my office is in the process of being redone. It is just beautiful! Stop by and look it over, it is warm and very inviting. I’m glad I didn’t have to pick the colors—I could not have done such a superb job as the Edmans––my daughter Mary who is an interior designer in Chicago was there to help too. I could not be more pleased. But—the repainting meant that I had to take all the books off the shelves and then restack them. I threw a few away but most I couldn’t part with. It took quite awhile as I looked through them and reminisced a bit.
One book dealt with preparing for the future. I paged through it. The pictures were of people who looked as if they were the Brady Bunch. I checked the date––thirty years ago. I guess whatever future it talked about is probably the past by now.
I found some materials from something called Key 73. I don’t know if Central Lutheran Church was part of this movement but the goal was to reach all people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ during 1973. I was in college at Concordia in Moorhead and I remember being part of a group that was going to deliver paperback copies of the Gospel of Mark in one of the neighborhoods. Then the campaign was called off. Why? Christian leaders in the community discovered that 90 percent of the people of Fargo-Moorhead could identify with a church. It is not to say that all were active members attending their congregations regularly, but they could name a church with which they were affiliated. There were some Jewish people and the rest, well, I guess the leaders of the campaign thought they were probably antagonists of faith or had no interest in religion. Why bother with Key 73, when all the people were already evangelized.
Times have changed. Even in Minnesota. A while back, Pastor Frank Wilson who served here at Central and is now at St. Mark’s in Salem, was telling me of a conversation he had had with a friend in St. Paul, a classmate of ours at Luther Seminary. Pastor Craig Richter said that he was finally encountering parents who were not bringing their children to confirmation. This was new to him. Apparently Frank had been complaining for years about church life here in the Northwest, that there wasn’t community pressure to go to church. I guess some of our concerns here are now nationwide.
I still receive some synod newsletters from the Midwest. One of the Minnesota bishops wrote, “A pastor told me that he sees too many people looking at the church as being an optional club which is one of the many choices a person can make with their time, energy and financial resources…but the church is to be the core of one’s life. I’m not talking about the time one spends in the church building. Instead, I referring to church as being the Body of Christ, the place where one can receive the gifts that sustain us—namely the Word of Life and the sacraments.”
Bishop Arlon Hermodson is right. The Church is not a club or membership organization. It is where Christ is preached and proclaimed and where disciples are made and nurtured. It is where we confront ourselves. We come to recognize that we are not who we pretend to be, but sinners who have been redeemed by a God who sent His Son to die for us. The Church is where we gather as sisters and brothers. We are very different from each other but we are one people gathered at the font and the table and sent out to serve in so many different ways.
Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last week. In fact some of the text is repeated. Jesus is back in Nazareth, his home town, and has just read the text from Isaiah in the synagogue. At first the people are glad: ALL SPOKE WELL OF JESUS AND WERE AMAZED AT HIS GRACIOUS WORDS—words of grace—THAT CAME FROM HIS MOUTH. They expected him to set up shop in Nazareth and perform miracles as he had done in Capernaum. I’m sure they were looking forward to the money to be made from the pilgrims coming to Jesus. It was ever thus. And still is.
If you were to go to Nazareth today—Pastor John and I were there the same year a decade ago—much is made of its being the hometown of Jesus. Many of the sacred places of the Holy Land are surrounded by souvenir shops all selling the same olive wood carvings, Armenian pottery and mother-of-pearl earrings. Religious pilgrimages are big business in the Holy Land. The same was true in ancient days—in the Greek and Roman world, people traveled to sacred sites; in Palestine, Jews would go up to Jerusalem three times a year. We know Jesus Himself traveled to the Temple with His family and later with His disciples.
Why did the people of Nazareth get so angry with Jesus? They were upset because He told them that God is not bound to certain places and locales or only to the Jewish people. He used Bible stories to prove His point. Elijah went outside Israel to the widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Elisha healed Naaman the leper from Syria. The prophets of ancient Israel proclaimed God’s Word and did God’s work and so would Jesus.
Christ came to bring a message that was good news to the Jews but also Good News for Gentiles. The Gospel was for all people, not just inside expected and customary boundaries. Jesus the Messiah came to fulfill the expectations of Israel but His work was not just for those inside but especially for those who had been kept outside. The people in the synagogue became angry. They wanted to drag Him to hill and toss Him off. From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry His words and actions would find some who believed and followed and many others who rejected Him.
It is easier for us if we just keep our faith to ourselves. One could do that in Moorhead, Minnesota in 1973. Families went to church, most were Lutheran or Catholic. We had the Ten Commandments carved in stone and placed in the yard of the Clay County Courthouse. I was just talking to someone this week and mentioned that until just a couple of years ago, Good Friday was a state holiday in North Dakota. Government offices were closed, also the bars and taverns and liquor stores.
It has been said that the past is another world. This is a new world we are living in, not the foreign country of the past. The new world is today is filled with people from the four corners of the globe. We are not just Lutheran or Catholic or Baptist or Presbyterian anymore. We may have Buddhist neighbors or Muslim or people who do not have any real religious tradition. My book from thirty years ago about preparing for the future never even talked about new people from around the world living in our neighborhoods or religions from distant lands becoming common here.
It is easy to see the threat of the new—think of the people of Nazareth. It was upsetting and scary to think that God was going to do something as radical as include Gentiles as His covenant people. It took the Church decades to understand what Jesus was saying—men could be part of God’s people without circumcision; Gentiles did not need to keep the kosher food laws or ceremonies of Israel. St Paul wrote “There is neither Jew nor Greek…in Jesus Christ.” It took eighteen hundred years before Christians acted on the next part of the sentence: “There is neither slave nor free.” Some churches still have not followed the rest: “There is neither male nor female but all are one in Jesus Christ.” There should not be division by race or background or gender. The Church of God is not a private club with membership limited to Jews only, to whites only, to men only, to straights only, to the highly able only.
I want to share an experience that happened to me this week. I was at the hospital visiting one of our long-time members. I had to wait outside the room while she got off the telephone. I saw a young man come up beside me wearing the church visitor name tag. I looked and saw he was Josh from the Central Presbyterian Church. Behind a very nice smile and bright eyes, here was someone with obvious disabilities. Josh had a slow walk and some difficulty speaking. I asked him if we were going to see the same lady. He was. Now I knew why she hadn’t shown up on the Lutheran roll—she must have said she went to Central and someone put her on the Presbyterian roll. I talked with the young man a while and he said that he wanted to be a hospital visitor because he had been hospitalized so many times himself. It was clear that God had called this differently-abled young man for God’s work at that place. I asked Josh to come in with me and we visited together.
Christ calls all people to follow Him. They may look different from those in the past but all are invited to hear Jesus’ gracious words and be part of God’s chosen family. God desires all people to come to knowledge of the truth and be saved. The Good News is not just for inside the church but outside for the women and men and children of our community. Some may use walkers and others have tattoos. Some may be university professors. Some may use English as a second language. Some have grown up in the Christian Church and others may not know anything about the Bible. Some work with you, go to college with you, some are your family members. We are not living in 1973 and our community is not 90 percent churched. But it is a wonderful place and time we are living in—a special and gracious time to reach out, accept, invite, challenge and love. Amen.
Copyright 2007 James D. Kegel. Used by permission.