EPIPHANY 4, C
I’m sure some of you have had an experience like the one Jesus had when he returned to his hometown.
Sometime after I moved here in 1977, I went home to be confronted by my cousin with, “ I just don’t understand why you didn’t move home after you got divorced,” said with a certain edge of outrage. I replied, “But why should I move home?” “Well, because your father could have gotten you a good job at John Deere and found you another husband.”
What could I say that would not be rude? This person seemed to have no idea that I might be able to get a good job all by myself and might not want another husband.
When Jesus goes home he also finds that the hometown crowd assumes that they know him and therefore can make him their own. He has to be nearly rude and offensive to convince them otherwise, and then they get downright nasty.
Remember the beginning of this story we heard last week? Jesus attends synagogue in Nazareth, where folks have been hearing good reports about him. He has recently been baptized and spent some time in the wilderness where he was sorely tempted. In other words, he has experienced life-changing events and is not the same Jesus who left Nazareth. When handed the scroll of Isaiah to read, he choses this passage:
“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.”
Then, he dares to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Still they were not offended, even though he made such a claim. They spoke well of him. Then said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
Ah, we know you, and you are one of ours and therefore we can expect certain things of you. Jesus sees what’s coming and deflects them by telling them what they will say next. He proclaims that no prophet is accepted in his hometown.
Then he goes out of his way to offend them, or maybe to test them. He reminds them of two stories from the prophets: One was when Elijah was sent by God to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon. “In Sidon” means she was not a Jew, yet there were many widows among the Jews who were also suffering from severe famine. Elijah did not help them.
The second story was when Elisha cured a leper called Naaman the Syrian, also not a Jew. Yet at that time there were many lepers in Israel. This was what filled the synagogue with rage. Not that the stories were not true, but that Jesus made a point of them, the very obvious point that he was not sent to his home town to do anything for them, but was going to the marginalized, to the outsiders, to carry out his mission.
He did come home to announce this mission, but the congregation was so outraged by what he implied about them that they wanted to throw him off a nearby cliff. Instead of thinking, oh yes, we’re righteous enough already, so he doesn’t need to work with us, they got angry when he deflected their hopes of what? Using him, co-opting him, basking in his reflected glory?
Jesus, like God, does not work at our pleasure or for our purposes. Rather he sees his way clearly and must go that way no matter who is outraged. Jesus calmly walks through the murderous crowd and goes on his way. We don’t really know how, but somehow I can see him looking each of them in the eye, probably with love rather than anger, and no one dared to touch him.
This reminds me of several times when I’ve heard really prophetic sermons preached and then also seen some of the aftermath. One was just a few years ago in Chicago. The associate priest preached a brilliant sermon . . . . . . . . and was accosted at the back of the church and harangued for nearly half an hour. The person was an older man, a large donor to the church, and he had not liked that sermon one bit. He also complained to the vestry and to the Rector.
The other happened in the late sixties also in Chicago, but a much smaller congregation. We had a new associate, fresh out of seminary who actually dared to quoted Martin Luther King in a sermon. I heard part of the outrage at the church door that time, and saw how listening to your enemy in love can work wonders. This priest listened to the elderly couple, acknowledged their outrage, did not take back what he’d said, but promised that he was more than willing to talk about it some more, whenever they had time. He got an invitation to dinner and went. I’m sure they never changed each other’s minds, but they did become better acquainted and able to accept that they saw things differently.
Lilly Piekarski used to confront me quite often about sermons she did not agree with and we had wonderful discussions. We didn’t agree, never could, but we could talk about it with respect for one another. I do miss her!
It was in remembering this that I realized why the Corinthians passage about love was paired with this Gospel. Like the Corinthians, the people of the Nazareth synagogue had need of understanding the power of this kind of love.
Although this passage is often used at weddings, it is not talking about married love. It is talking about agape, what we think of as Christian love, the sort of love you can have even for people you don’t like. It’s full of respect and fairness. It’s the sort of love that can happen even when everyone involved is not perfect. It’s the love that binds a family, a community, or a monastery together.
This love, described in Corinthians, is not about controlling others, as I suspect the congregation hoped to control or influence Jesus. It is not about forcing others to agree with you or casting them out when they don’t. It’s not about who’s on top.
The Corinthians had been arguing about which gifts of the spirit are greater and Paul reminds them that all are the same, as all are inspired by the same Spirit. Not only that, but it does not matter how great you are, or what magnificent gifts you have, if you don’t have love, you are nothing. If you have love, you won’t act as they have been acting.
It’s easy for us to see the folly of the congregation in Nazareth or Corinth, but we must ask ourselves if we are any different. Oh, we may be much too Minnesota nice to threaten a preacher with bodily harm, but what would we say about her? Would we seriously consider the message or just dismiss it? Would we engage in dialogue with the one who offends us or just talk among ourselves???
Luke makes it clear that Jesus came among us to serve those on the outside and those at the bottom of the social order. This Jesus, while clearly Jewish is able to see past the strictures and the structures of his own culture, and to do so in love. I trust we are learning to do that too. AMEN