Sermon Ideas For Luke 4:14-21 Part 2
Identity formation is an accumulative process, gained over time, building up within a person a constancy of image of self, others, and the surrounding world. Identity allows a person to hold firm in the changing circumstances of life and to tolerate a lack of control over others. Without a firm sense of identity one is vulnerable to rapid shifts in confidence, emotion and direction.
Jesus' identity is related to his home town and the synagogue in which he grew up. It is his "custom" to be there on the Sabbath. His family (nativity narrative), religious training (visit to Jerusalem for Passover), baptism, and temptation contribute to his emerging assurance of who he is and what he must do.
The preacher can focus on how personal identity is forged in human development, as well as in the religious community, taking the opportunity to emphasize the cycle of the church year and reenactment of the sacred drama.
When Jesus announces that he fulfills Isaiah's description of God's chosen One, a ripple of concern moves out through the congregation. "Is not this Joseph's son?" Others never see us as we see ourselves. Jesus' response is a bit testy as he begins to define his mission in terms which expand the scope of God's vision beyond the local situation. An edge of tension develops.
The development of hard feelings in the passage raises interesting issues for the preacher. How does one deal with the tension between the prophetic and the pastoral? "Prophetic is that dimension of ministry which more confrontationally seeks improvement in large groups and systems. Pastoral places more emphasis on personal health and growth, including intimate interpersonal relations with family and other small groups."1
It is important to remember that "challenge and comfort" are both functions of ministry, inter-related and mutually supportive. There is a tension which keeps condemnation and compassion interactive.
Ministry then goes beyond the therapeutic techniques of psychologies and the social strategies of sociologists to a more unified and greatly expanded task. Furthermore, we view God as the source of both challenge and comfort. God demands radical repentance. God also becomes the source of hope for forgiveness and deliverance (p. 963).
If the preacher uses the text to condemn and shame parishioners for a lack of prophetic ministry without pastorally orienting the worshipers to God's vocation, then he or she fails to maintain the prophetic/pastoral tension. This lectionary reading lends itself to several categories of exploration and explanation.
Pastoral Implication for the Prophetic--Every effort should be made to create a climate of trust in which potentially threatening and unpopular truths can be heard without defensiveness. This effort is not to soften the demands of discipleship, but increase the likelihood that such gospel demands are heard.
Prophetic Implication for the Pastoral--The old saying, "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" reminds us that the church must never become a place for uncritical affirmation. Such grace is cheap. When the congregation loses its transformational identity it is no longer being the church.
Support for Those Who Would Be Prophetic--Congregational care includes visiting the sick and bereaved, caring for those in need, and counseling those with feelings of injury. However, care also includes ministry to those who take on the difficult issues of our world. Agents of change, though often individuals who are somewhat insulated from the barbs of public attack, need the conscious support of the local church--a home base as it were. What is our ministry to these ministers?
Recognition, Developmental and Experimental Needs--Many persons will require therapeutic intervention, confrontation and resolution of internal conflicts before they are able to take on causes larger than self. Personal need often consumes whatever energy might have been directed toward others. However, once a person is freed from defensive postures and attitudes, the ability to love neighbor as self is able to emerge.
"Comfort and challenge," once considered discrete functions of ministry, are now seen as complimentary and mutually reinforcing. The age old tradition is that the one who "blesses them out" (confrontational sermon) is also the one who "blesses them" (benediction).
Years ago I lifted my eyes, following the pastoral prayer, to catch a glimpse of a parishioner walking out of the sanctuary. Not knowing what had happened I went by the next day for a visit. The conversation went like this. "I noticed you leaving church yesterday. Were you feeling ill?" "Yes," he replied, "I was sick of listening to you!"
I had used the pastoral prayer to address the issue of capital punishment, saying "forgive us for the lack of imagination shown in using execution to deal with murderers." The church member was livid. He felt I had used the prayer time, while he and others were silent and bowed in reverence, to put forth my own agenda. He was partially right and had chosen the only avenue of protest available--he walked out.
This potentially explosive situation taught me two things. It taught me to be careful how I use my office and position as priest and preacher. It also taught me to be attentive to the pastoral task of relating to people in a way in which dialogue and respect are possible. This was the beginning of a better relationship, opening up conversation with him and several others within the congregation.
The end result was a monthly series of worship services aptly labeled the "Red Flag Sundays." It was a joint venture between pastor and people. We agreed to address social and personal issues which were emotionally charged. The format included an introduction which framed the service by talking about the need to place our lives before God even if it meant stretching our capacity for tolerance. We used scripture, song, literature, arts, and media to look at what often was disturbing and uncomfortable. By reframing the situation no one felt the need to leave, and together we all learned.
The prophetic, without a pastoral heart, goes unheard, and the pastoral, without a prophetic edge, is not worth hearing.
James L. Philpott
1. Rodney Hunter, General Editor, Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, "Prophetic/Pastoral Tension in Ministry" (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), p. 963.
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