Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Growing in Grace" (Luke 4:21-30)

Jesus stood up in the synagogue and declared his mission by saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.”
Then he said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And the congregation went wild. “Yes!” “Amen!” “Preach it, brother!”
And some, with tears in their eyes, said: “That’s Joseph’s son! He grew up right here in our village!”
Then Jesus announced that he was bringing this message to everyone: to those beyond Nazareth, beyond Galilee, beyond the boundaries defined by the synagogue. After all, God loves everyone, even those outside the synagogue’s walls. Even those who are looked down upon by the religious institution, to them, God’s love and grace extend.
And like so many preachers who preach of the radical, inclusive, all-embracing love of God, Jesus found himself driven out of town.
It’s happened to me.
But not here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church.
For 70 years, Bixby Knolls Christian Church has taken seriously the challenge set forth by Jesus, to extend radical grace and all-encompassing love to all people. An examination of the church’s history shows this.
You can see in your bulletin a statement that was presented at that very first worship service 70 years ago, which expresses an openness and welcome that, for the time, was unusual among churches.
Our welcome has only grown since.
In 1979, when BKCC was just a little more than three decades along, a time when female preachers were rare, the church supported the ordination of Jo Ann Westerlund, who had come here as a student ministry intern.
In 1983, the church voted to become a Shalom Congregation. Also in the 1980s, the congregation joined with other congregations in resettling Cambodian refugees coming to southern California.
It’s not always popular to extend grace and hospitality to refugees and immigrants.
For many years, BKCC has had a partnership with the South Coast Interfaith Council. In fact, this congregation’s openness to interfaith work is something I myself have learned from.
In time, BKCC began extending grace and love to those in the LGBT community. In 2013, the congregation realized that it was important to let the community and world know that this is an important part of our identity, and the church voted to officially become Open and Affirming.
Today, even though we are a small congregation, BKCC is one of the few racially diverse congregations in a nation where the vast majority of churches are still segregated by race.
We are multi-racial. We are intergenerational. We are gay and straight. We are American-born and immigrant. We are people whose brains are wired in all sorts of different ways, allowing us to see and respond to the world in different ways…
Clearly, God’s Spirit is upon us!
I have heard stories from people past and present who said to me that Bixby Knolls Christian Church was the only place where they felt welcome, the only place where they were allowed to be who they are.
Some of these stories are quite moving. I’ve heard from current members of our youth group, and I’ve heard from those who grew up in this church some decades ago: nowhere else did they feel the welcome and the acceptance and the love that they experienced here.
And that, my friends, is everything.
If I could preach the best sermons the world has ever heard, it would be nothing compared to the love that is shown here. That love is everything. The apostle Paul says as much in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If I preach in the tongues of angels,” he says; “if I have prophetic powers, if I understand all mysteries, if I have faith that moves mountains… but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Because love is everything.
Bixby Knolls Christian Church hasn’t been perfect in love. We’re not perfect in love today. We have made – and will continue to make – mistakes.
But always, this congregation has worked to grow in love, to grow in grace, to love just a little more, a little better, today than it did yesterday, and to love just a little more, a little better, tomorrow than it does today.
We read the Bible. We take it seriously. And we find in its pages a constant challenge to always grow in love, to always expand the definition of “neighbor.”
A man once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Like the people in Nazareth, he heard the good news, but wanted limits concerning who the good news applies to.
Jesus responded by telling a story in which the most unlikely person – a Samaritan – proves to be the neighbor; he was the person most hated, most reviled…And the person who asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor” no doubt shared the prejudices of his society against Samaritans. Surely the good news doesn’t apply to them…
Yet by the end of the story, when Jesus turned the question back to this man, asking him, “So, who is the neighbor?”… The man was forced to admit that even the Samaritan is the neighbor he is called to love.
It is always a challenge to grow in love, to expand in love, in this way. This is the challenge that God sets before all who strive to be faithful, and it is the challenge that Bixby Knolls Christian Church, throughout its seven decades, has taken seriously.

Today is a day to celebrate all that God has done; to give thanks for the love that defines us; and to commit ourselves to a future of ever expanding love and grace for all people.
Yes, the Spirit is upon us! The Spirit has led us through 70 years of growing in grace and love, and the Spirit continues to lead us in this today.
We give thanks to God for what God has done for us. We praise God for what God has done through us. We celebrate what God continues to do through us.
It is right to give our thanks and praise to God, from whom all blessings flow.

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