Good news for the poor and birthday parties for prostitutes - A non lectionary sermon based on Luke 4: 14 -21
So Jesus begins his ministry by speaking of good news - ironic in a sense because by the time he’s finished his congregation want to throw him over a cliff - a fitting way you may think to deal with many preachers!
But this is good news that is very different from most understandings of good news for this is the good news that subverts the accepted norms of the day!
What do I mean by this? Well Palestine at the time of Jesus knew all too well what good news entailed. “Good news” or “gospel” was about Roman propaganda. Military victories by an empire built on violence were trumpeted as “good news” or gospel.” But the good news with which Jesus identified himself would be very different.
In this context good news was linked to a peculiarly Jewish vision. Here Jesus echoes words from the sixty first chapter of the prophetic book of Isaiah which echo the provision of the Jubilee Year envisaged back in the duty book of Leviticus as well as adding for good measures words from a little earlier in Isaiah which hint strongly at the salvific purposes of Jesus’ mission.
Let’s for a moment pause to consider the Jubilee vision. Recently it inspired the campaign by the Jubilee 2000 coalition to cancel the debts of the poorest nations of the world. But its original vision which lay in the aftermath of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt and in the emergence of a movement to create a new community in what was often called the Promised Land was to create a nation which rather than be dominated by a concentration of land and power would be one in which all should have a real stake in the community‘s wellbeing. This would be brought about through a freeing of bondage slaves, a return of forfeited land and a cancellation of debts in the Jubilee Year every 49 years.
Such a system could serve to remind the people that the land they had arrived in ultimately belonged to God. But still self interest worked amongst ruling elites to ensure that Jubilee was barely if at all implemented and so by the time of Jesus the land was owned by a small elite with the approval of much of the religious establishment whilst a multitude of peasants struggled to eke out a subsistence lifestyle against a background of great insecurity with the ever present threat of extreme poverty and the loss of basic freedoms and dignity.
Jesus will rail against these inequalities in much of his story telling challenging the status quo and offering a vision of the kingdom of God in which roles will be reversed from the torrid realities of the kingdoms of this world - a sort of fulfilment of the change in wealth and power envisaged by the pregnant Mary in Magnficat.
Time and again we will find Jesus as a friend and voice for the poor whilst the rich which in global terms includes each of us will find our place alongside Jesus as we aid an come alongside the needy.
And this is part of the calling of the church. In the second half of the 20th century we find South American Roman Catholic bishops at Medellin, Anglicans through Faith in the City and Methodists with the Mission Alongside the Poor programme placing themselves as friends of the poor so that in the words of the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez those not considered human in the present social order might receive the message that God is love.
Yes Jesus is good news for the poor. But it doesn’t stop there. He is good news for those who are outsiders or even outcasts whether through poverty or other reasons.
At the time of Jesus the religious professionals had developed quite a system of purity. And those who deemed themselves pure knew not to share food at tables with those considered impure. So to share a table with non Jews, the ritually unclean, those deemed to be “sinners” or those in questionable occupations such as tax collectors for Rome or even shepherds was to put one’s own character into question. You and I might happily eat and drink with anyone without feeling in any way disturbed but at the time of Jesus you were judged by who you ate with because to share a table meal with somebody was seen as accepting them with all that that entailed.
Jesus scandalised the religious establishment by riding roughshod over this demeaning system. Time and again he was derided for keeping bad company. Time and again he showed compassion to those who were seen as the people to be avoided. No wonder Desmond Tutu wrote with joy of Jesus that "his standards are quite low." For in social contact, healings and teachings, Jesus consistently gives dignity to those so often treated as non counting, virtually untouchables. Yes Jesus is good news for the rejected
And today Jesus calls on us to be those who in speaking, being and doing point to the humanity of those so often seen as just not counting. And the reason for this is that his love is the love that has no limits. It is wide! It is deep! It is for all!
I don’t think that it is a good thing for Christians to accuse one another of heresy or blasphemy. It is after all most of the time nothing but juvenile name calling. And yet when it comes to using Jesus as a justification for our prejudices thereby denying that his love is for all, then it is not without justification. Philip Yancey in his book, “ What’s so Amazing about Grace” tells of a Gay Pride march in Washington DC. The atmosphere of hatred disturbed him as marchers and protesters hurled abuse at each other - the occasion given healing only when a group of marchers from the Metropolitan Church, a church that has served as a place of safety for gay Christians, facing the bile of fellow Christian responded by singing, “Jesus loves us, this we know for the Bible tells us so.” And how right they were. Whatever ones’ view on human sexuality and I have friends with conflicting views on this one, the one thing we can affirm with confidence is God’s passionate love for each of us - lifting us up not knocking us down!
Tony Campolo is a prominent Christian sociologist in the USA. He tells a story of a trip to Honolulu to speak at a conference. Unable to sleep he gets up at 3am and goes for a walk. Feeling just a little bit hungry he ends up in a diner run by a fat guy called Harry to get a donut and black coffee. Sat there munching away at 3.30 Tony’s peace is disturbed by the arrival of eight or nine rather loud prostitutes smoking and swearing. As Tony prepares to get away he hears one of the women tell her friend that tomorrow will be her 39th birthday. The friend snorts back, “Well what do you expect - a birthday party with a cake and all of that?! “No” replies the birthday girl. “Of course not! I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
Hearing this, Tony makes a decision. He waits until all the women have left and then he asks Harry if they come every night. Learning that they do including the birthday girl whose name turns out to be Agnes, he suggests to Harry that they might throw a little birthday party for Agnes the following night. Harry goes along with the idea - his wife is even enthusiastic! And so the next day they decorate the joint and put up a “Happy Birthday Agnes” sign. Meanwhile Harry gets the word about the party out on the streets.
Well it works. By 3.15 the next morning the diner is jam packed with it would seem every prostitute in Honolulu. At 3.30 when Agnes arrives to the sight of a lifetime and a great shout of “Happy Birthday Agnes!” her knees just buckle. As she looks at the cake that Harry’s wife has made she begins to cry. Harry not used to seeing a prostitute cry calls out for her to blow the candles out. But this is not what Agnes wants to do. She asks to take the cake home for a few minutes promising to bring it back a little later.
As Agnes with tears streaming down her face leaves the diner, Tony gets on a chair and says “Shall we pray together?” And then in a greasy diner packed with prostitutes, he leads them in a prayer for Agnes that her life might be changed and that God might be good to her.
At this Harry leans over and with a touch of hostility says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”
In one of those moments when the right words came, Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3.30 in the morning.”
And Harry after a moment of silence in a mocking sort of voice replies, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was I’d join it. Yep I’d join a church like that.”
Jesus shocks his fellow townsfolk from Nazareth by demonstrating God’s love is for foreigners and is not just their private possession. And in this we find the scandal of the gospel. For here is a grace that touches those we might be tempted to look down upon. Indeed it seems that Jesus goes out of his way to show his compassion for those who are outsiders. And then as now he leaves us with a temptation to wish that he would show some sort of limits in where he puts his favour. Yet as he touches those who are the unvalued, he reminds us that we too have a place within his favour. For here is the Christ who is for all and who ultimately dies for all.
And now he calls on us to continue his mission to all that we might be followers not fans, that we might be those whose discipleship is defined by our being for disparate often battered humanity rather than setting ourselves against God’s creation. For the work of Jesus which we are called to continue is the work of good news which entails lifting people up that they might experience life with abundance and to do this even if it means throwing parties for prostitutes.