Sermon on Luke 8:1-3 for November 6, 2016, Pentecost +25, Stewardship 1
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
I have been thinking abut two words this past week: derivative and authentic. I heard an artist discussing a painting we were looking at which neither one of us particularly liked. His comment was, “It is derivative.”
Of course in one sense every piece of art is derivative, as is every song, every book, every film; everything we do comes out of a tradition, even if it comes out as a reaction to that tradition. So everything is derived from sources that preceded it.
And yet, I felt that he was right. There are some works of art, in every form, that borrow too heavily from what has come before. They lack the authenticity of originality.
So that brings me to the word authentic. An authentic work of art is not simply derived, it comes from a fresh, personal experience of the artist, or the writer, or the musician. It is genuine. It is real. You can sense that it lives on its own, rather than merely referring to its predecessors.
I think about the life of faith in terms of the words derivative and authentic. Our quest is to have authentic faith. Yes, in one sense, our faith is derivative. We may have grown up in a family that practiced it. We are in a majority Christian nation.
We stand in a Christian tradition that traces its roots to the Protestant Reformation of which, last week we began the year-long countdown to the 500th anniversary. We stand in the tradition of this congregation that is celebrating our 60th anniversary next Sunday.
But we are not at all content to have a faith that is merely derived or inherited. In fact, one of the mottos of the Reformation itself was “The church, reformed, always reforming.” The reformers recognized that an authentic faith would be one that grew and changed as the world unfolded.
How do we keep our faith authentic? By following the core motivation that was at the heart of the Reformation: ad fontes. Back to the fountainhead, the source. Our source of authentic faith is the life and teachings of Jesus. So that is what we return to every week as we seek to gather as an authentic community of living faith.
Luke’s Snapshot of an Authentic Community
The text we read from Luke’s version of the story of Jesus is like a snapshot. It is a picture of a group in motion, but like all snapshots, it freezes the action so that we can look at each detail. As we do, we see, in one moment, the seeds of this movement that Jesus was forming into an authentic community. This will be the rich source from which we gather our vision of how we too can be an authentic community of followers of Jesus.
Luke sets up the story with this broad brush. What was Jesus doing?
“proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.”
The Alternative Kingdom
The central message of Jesus is the kingdom of God. It is present; it is real. It is among us, it is within us; it is the living reality of God, for all who have ears to hear and hearts open to all it means.
The primary metaphor Jesus chose to use to proclaim his message was not the “family of God,” or “the community of God,” but “the kingdom of God.” At a time when Herod was the local king and when, especially in the East, Rome referred to itself as the “Roman kingdom,” calling his movement the kingdom of God sounds like a challenge. It was meant to.
From the beginning, the kingdom of God was a challenge to the politics of the day. Remember, it was the Roman political leaders and the local elites whose positions and power were derived from them, that conspired to kill Jesus, after what he did in Jerusalem. But Jesus opposed the domination systems of his day. The political power-brokers knew a challenge when the saw it, and dealt with it with their preferred method: brutal violence.
But Jesus proclaimed the alternative kingdom of God, and called it “good news.” It was good news on all kinds of levels, the political as well as the personal. As people received the message of the kingdom and came to understand that God was with them and for them, loving them, forgiving them, embracing them, and luring them towards goodness and truth and beauty, it was healing and transformative. In other words, authentic.
So Luke tells us that this is what Jesus was about. And this kind of proclamation created an authentic community of followers of Jesus. We know most about the twelve, most of them who walked away from their jobs as fishermen to follow Jesus. But Luke show us, in this snapshot, that there were many others as well.
Itinerant Healing Ministry – and Why
There were people who were healed by Jesus. Jesus was a person through whom God’s power flowed. People came to him for healing, and were actually healed. Luke names some of them here. Jesus was a person so alive to God, so in touch with the Spirit, that his touch, his words, his presence was healing. A healed person does not have a derivative faith, but an authentic, personal faith.
Many of us have experienced healing in different ways, as we have come to understand ourselves as loved and accepted by God, and called to be conduits of God’s love to our worlds. That is what an authentic faith is about.
Luke shows us that Jesus’ ministry was itinerant. He kept moving from town to town, making his way slowly to the capital, Jerusalem. This is also significant. As a healer, his family, in that culture, would have expected him to stay home and set up a healing ministry from which they could all benefit. People would come for healing and give gifts of gratitude, which could provide for the entire extended family.
We have all seen modern healing ministries that somehow always end up making the healer rich. We see the opposite from Jesus. We take note.
So Jesus, much to the chagrin of his family, kept moving. This was part of his vision of the kingdom. It was like yeast in bread dough, or like seeds that must be scattered widely. The kingdom kept pushing boundaries, going out to where the people lived, encountering them in their context, not waiting for them to come to him.
Women in the Community
So, in this snapshot, Luke shows us that there were many women that followed Jesus, along with the twelve men. Some were women with a past. Jesus’ acceptance of them shows us how God accepts us, even with our past, whatever that includes. That kind of gracious acceptance and love is healing. It is transformative. It is authentic.
From Jesus we see inclusion that is open to men and women. We notice that women were not among the central twelve leaders at the beginning; patriarchy was not dismantled in one step. But the women are included here as part of that authentic group of followers.
Luke tells us that it is the women who will stick with Jesus up to the crucifixion. It is the women who will be the first witnesses of the resurrection as the men cower in fear. Gender inclusion is an important part of what it means to be an authentic community of followers of Jesus.
Status in the Community
Did you notice how these women are identified and the order in which Luke lists them? This too is significant. Some, like Mary Magdalene had a dark past. Others were quite prominent, like Joanna, the wife of king Herod’s steward Chuza. The steward of the king was an inner-circle position. It came with wealth.
In Luke’s culture, it was normal, when listing people, to do so in the order of their socio-economic status. This is why, for example, in Acts, when Luke speaks of the couple Priscilla and Aquila, the wife is named first; most likely she was of higher social rank than Aqila.
But here, he breaks that rule and lists Mary ahead of Joanna, the wealthy wife of the kings’s steward. That is another part of the authenticity of the Jesus way of living, of the kingdom; wealth and status do not determine a person’s worth.
Everyone is valued for who they are. And all are together. They eat together at a common table – which was another huge innovation of Jesus. Rich and poor, men and women, people with a dark past and people of privilege and education together.
Support for the Community
How did that community live? We know that the fishermen walked away from their means of livelihood to follow Jesus.
Jesus himself walked away from the family carpentry business to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. How did they live? Even if you take the feeding miracles literally (which, I do not believe the writers intended) they were notable exceptions, not common events.
Well, here Luke shows how an authentic community lives: those who had resources provided out of their means for the others. An authentic community practices authentic generosity. Everyone participates, each in proportion to what she is able.
It takes a village, with everyone doing what they can. Some, like Joanna had lots of wealth, and she was generous in giving. Others, like Mary Magdalene, probably had little if any money. But she was there. Probably she was part of the fellowship crew that got the meals cooked and served after a long day of healing and teaching. That too is authentic generosity: generously giving time and energy, using whatever gifts God has given in the service of the community.
This is what we believe; as authentic followers of Jesus who have a living faith, not merely a derived faith, we practice authentic generosity. We do not sit passively on the sidelines, we participate.
Just as Jesus’ original community could not have functioned without generous support, so our community depends on all of us for support. Everyone participates. That is part of being authentic. We all give what we can. Some have lots of resources, others much less, but we all do what we can because we are authentically a part of this community.
We do not wait to the end of the month and support our community out of the leftovers. We believe in the principle of firstfruits; that we decide in advance what we want to give, and make sure it is a priority.
Talking about it
Luke was not at all embarrassed about discussing money in practical terms as some are today. For some people, money is not spiritual. But for Jesus, money has everything to do with where our hearts are, and for that reason is quite spiritual. Our spending is like a spiritual thermometer that shows the inside condition of our hearts. Authentic spirituality includes authentic generosity.
So we are not embarrassed either, to discuss money in this community. It is simply the practical truth that just like Jesus’ community needed support, so does ours.
We have developed practices that help us as a community. We use the pledge system so that we can try to get an idea of how much we can budget. The pledge is not a legal contract, but a serious statement of how much we commit ourselves to give in support of our community.
We encourage everyone to fill out a pledge card after prayerful consideration of how you want to be a part of that support. If your circumstances change during the year, you can always change your pledge.
Although we are not embarrassed to talk about money, I admit, I do not like to. I am so aware of all the ways religion has been used cynically to pick people’s pockets.
But look around: nobody here is rich, our building is beautiful but far from lavish. We make every effort to be responsible and thrifty with the resources that God entrusts to us through you. So, although I would hate it if this were your first time here and you come away thinking that we always talk about money, the truth is that it is only in this fall stewardship season that we do.
But here we are. We want to be a healthy, strong community. We want to be an authentic community. We take our vision of what that means from our source, from Jesus. The kingdom of God in practice, practices authentic generosity. This is part of our spiritual practice.