February 3, 2013 – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace All Around
So we’re smack dab in the middle of this story in Luke 4. Last week Mark preached on the first part of the story. Jesus has come back to his home town of Nazareth and goes to the synagogue as he did regularly. He’s been teaching in other synagogues in the area and now he is invited home to read the scripture and address the congregation. He’s the home town boy done good and people are eager to hear him. After all they’ve known him since he was knee high to a grasshopper.
Jesus reads the text from Isaiah that Mark talked about last week and then comments, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s where we ended last week.
This morning, we hear the rest of the story. [Read Luke 4.21-30]
In eight verses, this story moves from accolades to assassination attempt. What’s going on?
The Isaiah passage Jesus reads–about good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the oppressed being set free–was an essential text to the first century Jewish community in Palestine. This was a promise of God’s coming liberation and the first century Jewish community was waiting for that day. They were the poor and the oppressed longing for relief and release. Being occupied by the Roman empire made life miserable for everyone except those at the top. Those at the bottom, and those who clung to the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, were waiting for the day when they would be the recipients of the blessings Isaiah promises.
So when the congregation hears Jesus say, “Today. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” it’s like a spark that catches fire all across the congregation. It might have been like hearing President Obama link Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall in his inaugural address. When I heard that I could barely believe my ears. I think if I’d been with a group of people listening to the speech, we all would have looked around at each other with big eyes asking each other, “Did he just say what I think he said?” You can barely believe the day you’ve waited for might actually be here.
Jesus’ words are a flash, a spark, a blaze of hope for that congregation in Nazareth. Our liberation is here? Could it really be true that’s what Jesus is saying? We have waited so long!
And the congregation speaks well of him and they are amazed.
But then Jesus tells two stories and the mood shifts. “There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah…there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of” the Israelites but only to a widow outside of Israel who lived in the country of the pagan Phoenicians. “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian”–who was a commander in the army of a country that had been a threat to Israel. These stories are about people who are “other”; who are foreigners; who are strangers, even enemies, and who are the recipients of God’s blessing and grace.
And perhaps what makes these two stories even harder for the congregation in Nazareth to stomach, is that in both stories, God’s blessing and grace was not equally shared but only given to outsiders.
And the people in the congregation are enraged. Those good Presbyterians–and those first century Nazarenes–rose up in righteous anger to lynch the local boy done good who just spit in their eye.
The poet Mary Oliver has a poem that captures the sense of what happens in Nazareth. She writes about the time Jesus calmed the storm on the sea. This is an excerpt after she describes Jesus addressing the elements and the sea became still:
But you know how it is
the threshold–the uncles
the women walk away,
the younger brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it–
tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was–
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.1
That Jesus. “A thousand times more frightening than the killer sea.” So the uncles start to mutter, the women walk away, the younger brother begins to sharpen his knife. Someone else gets the rope.
“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” It will not be long before the crowd gathers again, muttering and sharpening their knives and then Jesus, who unsettles us and pokes holes in our theological boxes, will be caught up by them and will not walk away unscathed. But for now, “he continues his mission in the power of the Spirit and under God’s care.”2
It’s fairly easy for us to identify with Jesus in this story–the Jesus who says God will not be contained by your theological formulations. God will not be contained by your ethnic or racial or religious boundaries. We’ve made a practice at Central at breaking down some of those boundaries about who gets to be included in God’s family. But it doesn’t mean we’ve got it down. We’re all about God’s wildly inclusive love–at least when it includes us. There are still people we feel uncomfortable with, people we would like not to join our community, people we hate, people we secretly hope God is sending to hell. Right?
What we hear from Jesus is a radical inclusiveness–that even includes our enemies. That includes the people who threaten us. That includes the people who have the power to hurt us and who have done evil to us. Alan Culpepper, writing on this passage says, “When the radical inclusiveness of Jesus’ announcement became clear to those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth, their commitment to their own community boundaries took precedence” over “the prospect of others’ sharing in the bounty of God’s deliverance.”3
But here’s the paradox. Unable to stomach the possibility that God’s grace and bountiful deliverance could be shared with people they disliked, despised and detested, they became unable to receive it themselves. That’s true for us too. Professor Alyce McKenzie puts it this way: “You won’t be able to claim God’s blessings for your life unless you claim them for other people’s lives at the same time.”4
And that means taking our hands off the fences and the gates, dismantling our theological body scanners and ideological litmus tests. Because the job of setting limits on God’s grace does not belong to us.
I remember George and Jean Edwards talking about looking for a church during the Vietnam War where they could pray for the Vietnamese people. Not because George and Jean were anti-American but because they knew the people of Vietnam were also God’s children and also included in the wide reach of God’s grace–even at the same time they were known as enemies of our country.
Back in the 1960s, how would churches have responded if Jesus’ story had been about the prophet Elijah being sent not to the Christian church in need but to the Nation of Islam?
What if today we heard Jesus tell a story about the prophet of God being sent to people who belong to white supremacist militias? Or to communities that hate gay people? Or to the person who has hurt you the worst in your life? I don’t say that lightly and I don’t really even want to say it. But it seems to be the direction Jesus is pointing.
Jim Sanders, preaching on this story a few decades ago, said, “Could it be that the way in which we may hear the voice of God…is by learning ways of hearing the voices of our enemies?…I don’t mean our easy enemies. And I don’t mean someone else’s enemies…I mean our real enemies, those we know in our heart of hearts are wrong.”5
The Apostle Paul reminds us that love is the most necessary element of a faithful life and always more profound and encompassing than we can comprehend. It is more essential than beautiful language or intellectual discourse. More critical than prophetic or mystical abilities. More important even than faith. More fundamental than any other spiritual practice. Love is not a gushy feeling but it is flinty action that endures all things.
I suppose Paul says all this because love is the essential nature of God.
“Throughout history, the gospel has always been more radically inclusive than any group, denomination, or church, so we continually struggle for a breadth of love and acceptance that more nearly approximates the breadth of God’s love [and grace]. The paradox of the gospel…is that the unlimited grace [God] offers so [often] scandalizes us that we are unable to receive it.”
So perhaps the invitation of this story is to claim God’s love and grace for other people–even our enemies–so that we can receive them for ourselves as well.
* * *
1 Mary Oliver, “Maybe,” New and Selected Poems, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p97.
2 M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), p192.
3 R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p108.
4 Alyce M. McKenzie, “The Mount of Jumpification: Reflections on Luke 4:21-30,” http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Mount-Jumpification-Alyce-McKenzie-01-28-2013.html, accessed 29 January 2013.
5 James A. Sanders, God Has a Story Too: Sermons in Context, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p78.