What Does the Gospel Look Like?

February 12, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Luke 4:31-44

A Westminster group just returned from nine wonderful days in Cuba. We went to visit our partner congregation in the city of Matanzas. The little church is located in a neighborhood called Versalles and the congregation is referred to by that name. Westminster and Versalles have been in a partnership for 15 years.

When we first went to the island years ago, prior to our partnership, we learned from the Cubans that they did not want us to come do “mission work” among them. They did not want or need our solutions to their problems, our answers to their questions, our abundance to help with their scarcity. If that’s what we were after in a relationship with them, they told us, they were not interested.

The partnership would be based on solidarity, they said, on friendship, on mutuality, not on service projects we would perform for them. Instead, as equals, we would pray together and eat together. We would study and worship together. We would talk and dance together.

We did all those things on our trip. (At least we tried to dance. It’s hard to keep with Cubans in that respect.)

The first evening at Versalles we were welcomed by about 15 church members, from children to older adults. We went around the room asking everyone to say something about themselves. Carlos Emilio, the Cuban pastor, and I translated. It was my job to interpret the Spanish.

It was going fine until we came to Jorge, the retired night watchman at the church. A recent stroke had rendered him unable to speak. When it was Jorge’s turn to introduce himself he opened his mouth and unintelligible sounds came out. He was trying, but I’m not sure he realized his sounds were not words.

It was a long, awkward moment. We had not anticipated this and no one knew what to do. But then Magdalena spoke up from across the room. Magdalena is a church member we’ve known for years. She has been blind since birth.

In that moment Magdalena became Jorge’s voice. She told his story. She stepped in and shared his narrative. The one who could not speak, spoke through another; the one who could not see, saw his need and met it.

It was a gospel moment, when the words of Jesus about those without sight receiving vision came to life, when one who had been silenced by illness found his voice in another.

Witnessing that scene last week in the Cuban church brought to mind the scripture we had read here in worship a few weeks ago, the word from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus had said in the synagogue in Nazareth that he had come to fulfil that text. The good news would cease being merely a long-awaited hope, an abstract ideal, and instead would become a concrete reality.

“If we you ever wondered what gospel looked like,” Jesus had said, in effect, “I will show you – and you will see that God’s love extends far beyond your own limited vision, beyond even your own religion and nation.”

For saying that, they threw him out of Nazareth, and we’ve been following Jesus ever since. His first stop is Cana, and from there Jesus turns toward the Sea of Galilee, about 12 miles to the east. “He went down to Capernaum,” Luke tells us, “A city in Galilee.”

To et there Jesus would have walked down the valley that passes below Mt. Arbel, an ancient volcano. Two high points on the old volcano rim have been dubbed the Horns of Hattim. It’s a place full of history, biblical and otherwise. There, in the year 1187, Arabic Muslim forces of Sultan Saladin defeated European Christians, ending the Second Crusader Kingdom.

A year ago my wife Beth and I took that same route on our pilgrimage from Nazareth to Capernaum. We walked up the Horns of Hittim, and as we struggled up the mountain and down the other side using the metal handrails in the cliff face, we said to ourselves that Jesus probably had the sense to stay in the valley below to take the easier route.

From the top of Mt. Arbel the cliffs plunge 1300 ft. down to the Sea of Galilee, the lowest body of fresh water in the world. From the summit you can see past its glistening surface to the Golan Heights of Syria and back across the hills of Galilee. You can look south to Tiberias, to Magdala – home of Mary Magdalene – just below on the shore of the Sea, and to Capernaum in the north.

As we looked out over the land of the gospel, we hoped Jesus had actually made that same climb. From the mountaintop he would have seen the land where his ministry would unfold.

Mountaintops give a long view.

In our visit to Cuba we also spent time at the Protestant Seminary in Matanzas. The school is located on a hill high above the city. It’s the perfect place for those studying for Christian ministry. From there you can see the entire city. You can hear its life. You can sense its pain. You can imagine its challenges and possibilities.

As we looked out from the Seminary we could see the ocean and sense the endless love of God. That love is as real and intimate as the experience we had with Jorge and Magdalena, and as expansive as the wideness of the sea.

High places can broaden our vision. The prophets picture a peak as the place where God’s reign will be announced.

“How beautiful upon the mountain,” the prophet Isaiah says, “Are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news” – who brings gospel. (Isaiah 52:7)

Maybe Jesus did go up that Galilean peak to see more fully what God had in store for him. It was on such a height that God had said of the Hebrew nation:

“I will raise up for them a prophet…from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet.” (Deuteronomy 18:18)

We don’t often put Jesus in the category of prophet. We tend to see him more as a teacher and a healer. That’s safer. Prophet sounds a bit too political, too confrontational. It moves beyond the personal to the systemic. But…there is a time to be prophetic, a time to speak truth to power, a time to stand up for justice, a time to resist the ways of the world, a time to refuse to give up hope even when the odds seemed stacked against you.

Several Cuban pastors told us of how difficult it had been for decades to be openly Christian in their context. People of faith were persecuted by the government and rejected by friends and family. One pastor told us that his mother was publicly shamed and warned in front of the school parent council because her son, a seven-year old, had been telling Bible stories he had heard at home in the classroom. From that point on the mother hid her faith to protect her children, and instead chose to try to communicate it by the way she lived. She taught Christianity without talking about it. Twenty years later that little boy would return to faith as a young man, rejecting the stern atheism he had adopted after that second-grade experience, and sense a call to Christian ministry.

Being prophetic means different things in different contexts.

Last year it took us only four days to walk from Nazareth to Capernaum. Jesus would have taken longer, stopping to visit and teach. And he paused along the shores of the Sea of Galilee to call his first disciples. He would have had ample time along the way to ponder what the gospel – of which he had spoken so forcefully back in his home synagogue – would actually look like when he began his ministry in Capernaum.

By the time Jesus finally gets to the seaside village that would become his base during his years of ministry, he has become well-known.  So many people show up in Capernaum seeking help that he doesn’t sleep at all that first night. He stays up to respond to their needs, to heal their infirmities and dispel their demons.

If the question is what does the gospel look like, in Capernaum, as Jesus starts his ministry,  we begin to see. All that talk up in Nazareth is being made visible in people’s lives. They’re healed. They’re encouraged. They’re supported. They’re changed. They’re loved.

Perhaps most importantly, Jesus gives them back their dignity. They had lost it when mental illness had led people to view them as demon-possessed. They had it stolen from them when people pushed them out of community because of their physical illness. People with leprosy or other physical ailments were humiliated by being removed from the community and isolated. They had been robbed of their humanity by the degradation of poverty.

Those coming to Capernaum were cast-offs, those discarded because of their condition in life, who had lost their dignity. And Jesus was there to give it back. He came with good news. He came with gospel.

Dignity is “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. The state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. The word captures what gospel means. (dictionary.com)

Dignity. Jesus comes to restore it. To tear down systems that limit it. To resist powers that deny it. To reject any actions that aim to take it away.

In our current cultural and political climate our nation is denying dignity to some and thereby diminishing their humanity. When an immigrant family is torn apart, they lose their dignity. When people of color are profiled, they lose their dignity. When Muslims are viewed as threats, they lose their dignity. When police officers are assumed to be racist, they lose their dignity. When transgendered people are forced to be someone they are not, they lose their dignity. When we hate people because they disagree with us, they lose their dignity, and so do we.

Eco-activist Bill McKibben says America needs “the resurrection of a society with…dignity.” Can we agree with him? Can we start there? Can we make that our focus as people of faith and fellow citizens of this land? (Sojouners, March 2017, p. 14)

Jesus announces in Nazareth that the gospel is coming, and then he hikes down to Capernaum to show what that looks like. He walks from the hills to the sea and then begins his ministry by restoring the full humanity of those who had been robbed of it by circumstances beyond their control. And he starts on a Sabbath day, when the law prohibits doing any work, because he cannot wait another day to give people back their dignity.

Every person is worthy of respect. All of us can recognize our mutual humanity. Each of us can honor the image of God in the other.

It’s what the Cubans expected of us as we began our partnership with them.

It’s what Magdalena did when she spoke for Jorge last week when he could not. In her sightlessness she saw his need, and then she gave him back his dignity.

That is what the gospel looks like.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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