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How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Sermon
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Year C, Epiphany 4
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The sermon starts off well.
A hometown celebrity of sorts, a newly minted preacher in his childhood pulpit perhaps, Jesus is poised for success as he opens up the scroll to his desired scripture. Some may have been suggesting that he had gotten a bit too big for his britches, but as one of them, he must have been afforded a particular generosity of spirit by the crowd.
He picks a fan favorite portion of scripture. God’s generosity. God’s providence. God’s jubilee. These are excellent places to start a sermon from if you want to be invited back to the pulpit, if you want your mother and family to be proud of what you have become.
“This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he says, and puts the scroll down. It’s a good ending. He could dine off that sermon for at least a month with the acclaim he receives from the people. They want him to stay, to heal them, teach them, do for them—“do for us”, they say-- the glorious things he had done for others, at least according to the local scuttlebutt.
I wonder if the demand to ‘do it for us as you did it to others’ may have sparked a homiletical turning point. Because Jesus continues the sermon, and that’s when it starts to fall apart.
Us? he says to the crowd. There were widows aplenty in the time of Elijah, and he could have gone to his own people to save them during a famine. Instead he performed a miracle to save a widow in Sidon, outside of Israel, from starving.
Us? he says to the crowd. There were lepers aplenty in Israel in the time of Elisha, but he went to none of them but the general Naaman, a Syrian. The salt in the wound in this one? Naaman didn’t even believe that Elisha could heal him—and yet, he was top of the list for wholeness when others who were part of the actual people of God went unhealed.
I have learned a few things from living in Massachusetts for the past twenty odd years, one of the most helpful life lessons being ‘don’t wear a Yankees hat to a Red Sox game.’
Church, Jesus wore the Yankees hat to Fenway in that sermon. He wore a big blue ‘M’ to an Ohio State football game. He yelled ‘Roll Tide!’ in a sea of orange and blue. He blessed Tom Brady at a Patriots vs Buccaneers game in 2020.
And church, then it got ugly.
There is a deep satisfaction in assuming that oneself, and one’s community, is on the side of right, and even righteousness. Being right, being the one who is ‘winning’, brings with it not only a moral superiority (even if no one recognizes it but oneself), but satiates that deepest yearning of our less-than-perfect souls—being right brings us power.
The people of Nazareth aren’t alone in their unwillingness to hear stories of their beloved God essentially cheating on God’s people—no one likes to hear that they are not the only chosen, that there are others equally capable and gifted, worth an equal amount of love and blessing and life.
No matter how many times we read and mark and inwardly digest that we are each beloved to God, and each bearing an image of God in our being, we still cling to a zero-sum mentality, as a security blanket: if someone else gets more, then I get less. If someone else is valued, I hold less worth. If someone else is right, then necessarily I am wrong.
We want God to take sides because we wish to be on the side of right. But our subtext is the desire to assume the power of God through the assurance of our own right-ness and perceived righteousness. If we are right, we reason, then we are blessed. If we are right, then we can lay claim to the very power of God.
Consider again the outrage of the people towards this message of Jesus. I keep returning to the question of whether they were angered because Jesus preached that God can love and work through others outside the margins of our group, or were they outraged because Jesus preached that God doesn’t take sides in the existing arguments of God’s people?
The season of Epiphany is all about revealing who God in Christ is—who is this God we have longed for and anticipated—who is this God who has come at an inopportune time and in an inopportune place—who is this Christ who will manifest the love and presence of God to the world?
And in Nazareth, the very locale of the incarnation, in the heart of Jesus’ human roots, son of that guy who lives down the street, Jesus tells the crowd how unlike humanity God truly is.
God is not limited by our grudges and resentments like we are. God is not addicted to being right, or wielding power as we can be. God isn’t as concerned with who wins, but rather, who is changed. Who can grow deeper; who can imagine and pray in a different way, allowing themselves to be subsumed into a space where God is our orienting point, rather than our own small need for power and agency.
The people that day were rocked and roiled because they were being asked to think in a different way about an standing assumption about their intrinsic value which made them, if not happy, then at least comfortable. Which makes us, church, if not happy, then comfortable.
Following this week’s forum with the Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, I kept thinking back to the two times I ever saw Archbishop Tutu in person: once as he came to inaugurate the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Center at the General Theological Seminary in New York City in 2008 (flanked by the two largest seminarians on campus we could find), and then at one of his final public events in 2010, the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, priest here in Massachusetts before becoming Bishop of Connecticut. At Bp. Douglas’ consecration at a hockey rink in Hartford, the Archbishop repeated again and again that Ian’s role as bishop, and our role as Christians, was to ‘LOVE THEM’. “Democrats… Republicans…. LOVE THEM. Red state…. Blue state…. LOVE THEM! Obama…. Palin…. LOVE THEM!” he commanded, not just to the new bishop, but to all of us. We laughed at first. But he kept repeating it: LOVE THEM. Then the laughter turned a bit nervous. And the Archbishop heard that shift.
He continued, "We don't choose who is going to be my brother or my sister — though I wish I could. They are God's gift to me, as I am God's gift to them."
God isn’t coming to hallow the ways we think we have been right or righteous or correct—God came into the world to undo the binary means of thinking, and to issue in a reminder of our limited nature compared to God. A reminder that our role isn’t as judge, but to faithfully, transformationally, uproot all that takes us away from love, and to start again imagining what the love of God, the judgment of God, might look like here and now.
If we dislocate God from our very human ways of dividing and conquering, we might be able to hear God as God—the God who operates from a fully different orientation, one which stems from love. Mercy. Grace. Whose nature is echoed in Paul’s hymn to love in his letter to Corinth, a community as varied as any you might find two thousand years later, where diverse needs, values and even gods prevailed—and still, God’s word to them, through Paul, was love. Love which doesn’t keep score. Love which is not based on an outcome. Love which is not a victory, but an undoing, an unbinding, of the smallness of our minds and souls.
The God who is preached by Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth is the one for whom power has never been the source of agency, but rather the eschewing of it is. The only way to undo the power which holds us tightly and narrowly is to relinquish it fully.
“Do for us here what you did for them,” the people of Nazareth beg of Jesus.
And Jesus does. He tells them of God’s love and mercy for all, even those whom we revile, or fear or dismiss. He tells them of God’s wholeness, the desire of God not of perfection, but of transformation. He tells them that God isn’t one who takes sides-- which is only a bad thing if one imagines themselves on the winning team all the time.
And he tells them that this is the Good News.
And it is, church. This is good news for our souls and for our lives.
Amen and amen.