Epiphany 3c, January 24, 2016

January 25, 2016

The Ministry Plan
Luke 4:14-21

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.”

Not long ago there was this trend within the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church to get individuals and churches to develop ministry plans. I don’t know if other organizations are still utilizing this type of tool as a means of promoting a higher level of function, but that was the initiative within our conference for about a decade. And I’m guessing this was the case for many institutions within our state and nation. Some of my peers may still be engaged in this exercise, but I stopped turning in a personal ministry plan when the Charge Conference packet stopped asking for one.

It’s not a bad exercise to engage in the process of examining your values and goals, but I can testify that the development of a personal ministry plan is not an automatically transformational activity. It may be that I’m hopelessly entrenched in the way I function, but I think I entered into the process of developing a personal ministry plan with a reasonable amount of willingness, and it was not a life-altering enterprise.

Now it could be that I would be even more disorganized and unfocused if I hadn’t written down what’s most important to me, but I don’t think it altered the course of my behavior very much.

I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of spending time intentionally thinking about what is most important. I actually enjoyed some of the workshops I attended where I was lead through this process of developing a personal ministry plan. It’s not a bad thing for people to try to identify what is most important to themselves as individuals or for groups of people to create statements that best reflect what they intend to do, but I’m guessing most of us have an internal guidance system that tends to override whatever it is that we say we intend to do.

Maybe the development of mission statements and mission plans helps some people or organizations to recognize strategic gaps between intentions and actions, but I’m pretty convinced we all operate by a clear set of guiding principles – whether we’ve written them down or not – even whether we know them or not.

You might say Jesus had just attended a very unorthodox personal ministry plan workshop just prior to his arrival in Nazareth. The preceding story relates his experience of being tested by satan in the wilderness, and we’ll actually look at that encounter more closely in a couple of weeks, but I think he came out of that experience with a very clear sense of who he was and what he intended to do. As far as we know he didn’t write anything down when that trial was over, but he certainly knew what was written on his heart, and he shared it with the people of Nazareth.

My father once said that there is no such thing as a bad short sermon, and I think there’s a good amount of truth to that, but Jesus wasn’t just trying to keep the message short when he spoke these brief words to those who had gathered in the synagogue to hear what he had to say. After finding and reading these powerful words from Isaiah, his sermon was one sentence long: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

Jesus’ sermon was short, but it was powerful. In fact some of the people who heard what he said tried to kill him. I’ll have more to say about this next week when we look at the next few verses in this chapter, but what Jesus had to say was shockingly clear and to the point. Jesus’ ministry plan was remarkably clear and ambitious in the best sense of the word. Jesus had no doubt about what he intended to do with his life, and many people found it to be disturbing.

We are told that Jesus was filled with the power of God’s Spirit, and that spirit had a very clear agenda. It wasn’t just a spirit that moved him to worship in a lively way, it propelled him to reach out to the people who were most disenfranchised from life. The text says that Jesus found this passage to read, which means that Jesus wasn’t just reading a text that was handed to him. He was very intentional about what he read, and he made it very clear as to what his agenda would be.

One thing this passage does for me is to remind me that Jesus was very much a Jew. We Christians tend to forget this sometimes, but the first place Jesus went when he finished his trial in the wilderness was to a synagogue. Jesus was the perfect manifestation of the message of Judaism. He would be the source of terrible conflict within the Jewish community, but it wasn’t because Jesus departed from the tradition. Jesus had a clear sense of what the Jewish faith was all about, but it wasn’t an understanding that was shared by everyone.

As people who claim Jesus as our guide, I think it’s helpful for us to understand where Jesus came from, and I also it’s important for us to examine the ways in which our intentions to follow Jesus actually match up with the actions we take to follow him. How well do our words match up with our deeds? Are our stated or unstated ministry plans in line with who Jesus was and what he did?

I think it’s important for us to think about these things because as surely as the Jewish community had trouble recognizing the hand of God in the life of the one who perfectly embodied their faith, it’s possible for those of us who claim Christ as our savior to live in ways that are counter to who he was. I’m not wanting to point to anyone or anything that might implicate our current lostness. I don’t want my sermon to be so powerful that you will want to get rid of me, but there’s a significant amount of historical evidence that indicates such a thing can go on.

I also know it’s possible for us to get caught up in the same spirit that Jesus embodied and shared – there’s evidence that points to this possibility as well, but in some ways it’s easier to become disconnected from the true spirit of Christ than to become consumed by it.

A few years ago my son gave me a book to read that made quite an impression on me. It’s probably a good book for all preachers to read, but I doubt that it has ever been included in anyone’s seminary training. The book was called, The Braindead Megaphone Essays by George Saunders. It is a collection of essays on a variety of topics that touch on the way we interact with one another, and the essay from which the name of the book is drawn portrays a party where people are milling about having reasonable conversations with each other until a man bursts into the room with a megaphone and begins broadcasting these really lame messages.

The people at the party try to ignore the intrusion at first, and they resist the loud voice in a variety of ways for a while, but ultimately the man with the megaphone wins out. At some point people stop resisting the loud voice and in time they all allow him to define reality for them. They quit talking about whatever it was that used to be of interest to them, and they only talk about whatever it is the man with the megaphone happens to be going on about.

Saunders, who is a sociologist, uses this image to describe the way in which our public discourse is largely defined by large corporate media outlets who get fixed on certain stories which become the focus of our national attention. I can testify to the truth of this. I don’t feel bad about my recent total fixation on the super snow-storm of the last few days, but CNN has made it the most important thing in my life for the last few days. I find this essay to be pretty convincing, and it serves to remind me of the ways in which we often relinquish control of our lives and our minds to messages that aren’t necessarily rooted in essential truth. And the really insidious thing is that we are generally unaware of the way in which there is someone with a megaphone in the room who is guiding our thoughts and actions.

This may be an usual thing to hear from the guy standing in the pulpit with a microphone, but you need to be suspicious of the various ways loud voices seek to gain control of our minds. And it’s not just large media corporations that do this – I dare say it’s possible to turn your brain over to facebook and other forms of social media. The devices we use have powerful impacts on our lives, and we need to be careful how we interact with them. We are exposed to a lot of loud voices. And the loudest voices aren’t always the least reliable voices, but they often are.

Jesus certainly wasn’t known for being loud. He was known for being the most righteous, and the most gracious, and the most truthful person.

I’m pretty convinced that it’s hard to live in our society without being guided by agendas that have little to do with Jesus and the spirit that guided him. Christianity gets defined in a lot of different ways in our world, and many things that are labelled as Christian have nothing to do with what Jesus taught or how he lived. There are always some loud voices telling us what’s wrong with our society and how to resist the evil of our day, but it’s important for those of us who aspire to follow Christ to listen to listen to sound of his voice – which isn’t easy.

It’s easy to see that things aren’t quite right in the world, but it’s not an easy fix. Jesus announced that he came to liberate people from all kinds of oppression, and I take great comfort in this because we all know how oppressive this world can be. Many of us have access to an abundance of material comforts, but none of us are free from some kind of bondage, and we all are in need of a savior.

Jesus came to provide access to abundant life to all of us, and we need to allow him to show us how to find it. Jesus had a plan, and we need to make sure our plans are in line with his plan.

Following Christ is a high calling, and it’s a hard calling. In fact without the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives it’s an impossible calling. And while Holy Spirit may not speak with the loudest voice, it’s the most persistent voice, and in time if we are open to it – it will get through to all of us and enable us to know that today the words that Jesus spoke have once again been fulfilled in our hearing!

Now is the year of God’s favor – thanks be to God. Amen



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