This sermon was preached on February 23, 2014 at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, on Luke 4:14-21.
Simon says raise your right hand.
Simon says put your right hand down.
Simon says raise your left hand.
Simon says put your left hand down.
Simon says raise both hands.
Put both hands down.
If you just put your hands down, I hate to tell you—but you are out of the game.
To refresh everyone’s memory, “Simon Says” is a children’s game where one person is designated the leader, or “Simon.” Simon gives directions for the group to follow, but each instruction has to start with the phrase “Simon says.” If the leader gives an order without saying “Simon says,” the other players are not supposed to mimic the action. If they do, they are out.
Today, we kick off our study of Mike Slaughter’s book Change the World: Recovering the Message and Mission of Jesus. As we prepare for and enter into the season of Lent, small groups and Sunday School classes at Centenary will be reading and discussing this book. Each week for 6 weeks, a different word will guide our study: Follow. Welcome. Feed. Heal. Rescue. Go.
We start with “Follow.” I chose to begin by playing “Simon Says” because it is a game of following. But it’s about more than that. In “Simon Says,” if you follow directions without paying attention, you will make a mistake. “Simon Says” isn’t just about following; it’s about listening.
In the church, we talk a lot about following Jesus. And we should. That’s what we are called to do: follow Jesus.
But in order to follow Jesus, we first have to listen to him. Otherwise, we might look up one day and find ourselves following something other than Jesus—money, politics, ambition, career, you name it. We might end up following something that seems good—morality, religion, a pastor, even Christian values—but following any one of these things is not the same as following Jesus.
The passage we just heard from Luke 4 marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He has been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, and he comes to his hometown to begin preaching, teaching, and healing.
Mike Slaughter says that this passage defined Jesus’ mission, and it defines our mission, too. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Many passages of Scripture lend themselves to different interpretations, and so I am wary of any sentence that starts with the phrase “The Bible clearly says…” But the Bible is clear on a few things, and this is one of them. Mike Slaughter puts it this way: “The gospel is good news for the poor. If it is not working to benefit the poor and oppressed, then it is not the gospel!”
Jesus goes to bring good news to the poor. And then Jesus says, “Follow.”
If we are listening to Jesus, we will notice that here, he does not say, “Follow me to get into heaven.” Modern Christianity tends to be obsessed with personal salvation, with getting into heaven. Salvation is important, of course, but it is not all about getting fire insurance for your soul, so to speak.
While we are scrambling to make sure we know where we’re going when we die, Jesus is asking us to notice first where we’re going while we live. Jesus ascended into heaven only after he had descended to this world, after he had gone to bring good news to the poor.
In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell says this: “A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it.” If we focus only on heaven later, we miss our opportunity to taste and realize heaven now. Mike Slaughter says, “We have overemphasized getting people into heaven to the neglect of getting heaven into earth.”
Since last September, we as a congregation have held up a simple but profound question: “Are you hungry?” The answer has been a resounding yes. We—and our neighbors—are hungry—physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally.
As we have explored the many dimensions of hunger, we have talked about prayers, presence, gifts, and love, and in the month of February, our theme has been reverence. What does it mean to be reverent, to be holy, before a God who is holy?
When we talk about holiness, we tend to focus on personal holiness—our own morality and piety. This is part of holiness, but it goes far beyond that. We cannot be holy on our own. We can only be holy together. This is why John Wesley said, “The gospel of Christ knows…no holiness but social holiness.”
There is a story of a man who had stopped going to church and was spending most of his time alone in his house. The pastor went to visit him and found him sitting by a fire. The man welcomed him, and the pastor came in and had a seat but said nothing. As they sat, the pastor moved to the fire, took a pairs of tongs and removed a single ember. He set it off to one side of the hearth.
In a matter of minutes, the ember’s glow faded, and it grew cold while the fire blazed on. The man turned to the pastor and said, “Thank you for that sermon. I’ll see you on Sunday.”
We cannot be holy on our own. We can only be holy together—together not just with the people in our church but with all of God’s children. Jesus says, “Follow”—and he says it to all of us, together.
This is what I want you to think about when we get into our Lenten theme of service. We serve one another because we need each other, because we are called not to get into heaven but to get heaven into earth.
We are called to service, we should be careful not to forget who the real savior is. The real savior is not morality, religion, a pastor, or Christian values, and it is certainly not us. Slaughter’s book calls us to change the world, but we can only do that in the same way Jesus began his ministry—“by the power of the Spirit.”
We are called to service, but we are not the savior. Jesus is. All we do is follow and show the way. As D. T. Niles put it, “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
Lilla Watson is an indigenous Australian activist, and she said one of the most compelling and challenging things about service that I have ever heard. Here is what she said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Our liberation is bound up with the liberation of the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed, because we are all just beggars looking for bread. If we serve our neighbor because we think we have something to give, because we think we can help, because we want to make them more like us—we are wasting our time. But if we serve our neighbor because we believe that the only way we can be saved is to be saved together, then, perhaps, we have begun to follow Jesus.
Remember when we played “Simon Says” earlier? Have you ever wondered how that game got started? Apparently it goes back centuries, millennia even. It refers to a saying about Cicero, a Roman politician and orator from the 1st century BCE.
The saying went like this: Cicero dicit fac hoc, or “Cicero says do this.” Cicero was such a powerful person that if he said to do something, you just did it.
What if, when Jesus said to do something, we just did it?
One of my favorite saints is St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant, but when he became a Christian, he renounced his family’s wealth. He went down into the valley to meet Christ in the poor and the outcast, becoming poor and outcast himself.
When Francis heard Jesus say, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor,” he thought that Jesus actually meant it. Francis is my favorite Biblical literalist. Jesus said it, and Francis just did it.
Jesus goes to the poor in a city ranked the worst in the country for childhood food insecurity. Jesus goes to the captives in a country that has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Jesus goes to the blind and the oppressed, to the disabled, the marginalized, the addicted, the vulnerable, the outcast.
Jesus goes to each one of us, and Jesus says, “Follow.”
Are we listening?