Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Luke 4:21-32 - link to NRSV text
In the Lucan set of beautitudes and woes, Jesus says, "woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets" (Luke 6:26).
Maybe that's why Jesus didn't leave well enough alone when "all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth" in this passage. Every now and then, I find that a position of leadership I'm in puts me in a position where I have to tell someone something I know they really don't want to hear. I think Jesus was in that position in what he had to say in last week's gospel (if you missed the blog entry on that one, you might want to look it over for context for this one). In last week's gospel, Jesus asks the congregation in that Nazareth synagogue to accept that the "day of vengeance of our God" that Isaiah 61:2 proclaims, a day which a conquered people in an occupied country must have longed for, was nowhere in sight. And in doing what he does with that reading -- editing to jump back and forth between Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 47 and eliminate the "day of vengeance" while preserving the parallelisms of the passage -- Jesus also asks his hometown congregation to accept his authority to reinterpret so radically.
At the beginning of this week's gospel, it looks like Jesus has pulled it off. All speak well of him. And then Jesus starts speaking again (and I can imagine his followers letting out a Homer Simpson-style "doh!" in the background when they see that starting to happen -- here comes trouble!). Jesus issues a final one-two punch, and pushes the hometown crowd from cheers to murderous rage. Jesus cites Elijah and Elisha as his predecessors -- a bolshy enough move -- and then points out that in times of Israel's great need during their ministries, these prophets of Israel were sent to heal Gentiles.
I wish I could reproduce here a meditation I wrote for the book Get Up Off Your Knees on the U2 song "Until the End of the World," because I did some reflection there along this theme: how is it that a crowd can go so quickly from cheering to throwing stones? What turns friends and followers to betrayers?
I've been working lately with this as a definition for sin: sin is treating something as being worth less than it really is. In this case, the crowd is given an incredible gift -- an encounter with the vision of Israel being a blessing to the nations, a fulfillment in the here and now of God's promise to Abraham. It's not just Good News -- it's the best news. It's the vision of the prophets enfleshed in the present, and it's God's work. It's not what we had hoped for, but it's better.
How often do we treat a good gift, a gift from God, as if it were worthless because it's not what we expected? How often does what we think we want blind us to what we need? How often do we push away someone who could speak God's word to us because we think s/he has nothing to teach us? When we fail to listen for the unlikely prophet, we run the risk of pushing away someone who could help to set us free. Personally, I need every word the prophets can give me, so I pray daily for the grace to listen deeply.
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Luke 4:14-21 - link to NRSV text
These days, it seems that we churchy people are really into mission statements; I know a number of judicatories (dioceses and the like) in a number of denominations in which congregations are more or less required to come up with them. In this coming Sunday's gospel, Jesus offers his own, in a quote from Isaiah.
Actually, Jesus is offering not a straightforward block quote from Isaiah, but a mix between two passages, substituting a clause from Isaiah 42 for a clause he finds objectionable from Isaiah 61, which is the chapter from which the brunt of Jesus' mission statement comes. But Isaiah 61:2 proclaims "the day of vengeance of our God." Jesus cuts that part, and to preserve the parallelisms of the passage, instead brings in a clause from Isaiah 42:7, "the recovery of sight to the blind." Jesus rejects John the Baptizer's contention that the coming one was coming to bring vengeance, to shovel the chaff into the fire (what I talked about in my January 5th entry for the First Sunday of Epiphany), to proclaim more of the kinds of things his disciples said characterized Jesus' ministry – the kinds of things we see in summary statements like Acts 10:34-43. Jesus came to heal and reconcile, and he defined righteousness as living into that kind of infinitely forgiving relationship with others, not as dealing out punishment to wrongdoers.
That's not always appealing to us -- small wonder folks in the synagogue were upset by Jesus' reading and midrash in the synagogue in Luke 4. Jesus claims ancient prophesies and says they have been fulfilled in our hearing, but not the prophesies we sometimes find juiciest -- the ones in which our enemies, which in our hubris we are tempted to think of as God's enemies -- get their comeuppance. The bottom line is that the Word which God spoke in Creation is the same word we hear in Jesus' ministry here, and is the same word we hear in the judgment at the climax of history, and that word is "I love you." It's the word of healing, of liberty to captives and of sight to the blind, and the first thing we blind ones will see is that it is a word for everyone. God wants that healing for everyone, and has spoken against vengeance against any of those whom God loves. That's a word of hope for all of us -- there's hope for us yet!
Thanks be to God.
Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Isaiah 62:1-5 - link to NRSV text
For Zion's sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch
– Isaiah 62:1
This verse came to mind for me the other day, when I read a question that a member of St. Martin's submitted for a column in the parish newsletter called "Ask Anything!":
People are always saying things like "God has a plan for us" and "everything happens for a reason" (like "God took Carl for a reason"). Is there a scriptural basis for saying things like this? How does the Church view life purpose?
Glad people are only asking the easy questions, right? The problem of evil? No problem! ;)
And that's where this question is headed. If you say that God plans everything, then the next sensible question is "So does God plan genocides then?" Ack. (Is "ack?" a scholarly word? Oh well.)
I think there's an important distinction to be made between a view of God as choreographer and of God as redeemer. God does have a plan for us as a people - "plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11). I don't believe, though, that God traces out every step we should take for us - whether I have raisin bran or wheat toast for breakfast, whether I take Route 29 or I-95 to work, or even necessarily whether I become a priest or a social worker. Many of the choices we make aren't choices between "in God's will" and "out of God's will," but are choices between two or more potentially good things. Almost always, any given choice will have things about it that are good and life-giving and other things about it that are unhelpful, so we've got good and bad coming no matter which option we take.
That's one of the reasons that the view of God as a choreographer who spells out every step we take doesn't work for me. Another reason, one that I talked about in my sermon from September 14th, is that some things - atrocities and tragedies - are rightly described as "senseless." Bad stuff happens, and I don't believe it was all choreographed. I don't believe in fate; I believe in redemption. The image that comes to mind for me most often when I think about this is of gravity. Gravity is a force so constant and so powerful that, although we can build things like airplanes to defy it for a while, eventually the plane will need to refuel and land. Even if it can refuel in midair, sooner or later the plane will wear out, and gravity will win out against anything on earth.
God's power to redeem is a little like gravity. I believe that evil exists, and pulls against God's redemption, but evil is finite and redemption is not. God's love for us and for the good world God created is so powerful and so constant that there is no power that can stand against it forever. "The universe arcs toward justice," as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and no matter how rotten or senseless something is, God's redemption will keep working on it until healing and reconciliation and justice win out. "For Zion's sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch," as our reading from Isaiah says. That's the wave we get to ride as we live into our Baptismal Covenant to "persevere in resisting evil" and "strive for justice and peace among all people" (BCP, pp. 4-5).
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
The Baptism of Our Lord
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22 - link to NRSV text
Once more, I'm preaching this coming Sunday, so I'd like to offer a slightly different angle on the readings than I'll be taking in my sermon, and I invite you to take a look at my sermons page next Monday to see how I dealt with the readings from the pulpit.
For now, I'd like to say a word about John the Baptizer and his relationship with Jesus. I'm very much in debt on my thinking about this to Robert L. Webb, who was one of my professors at divinity school in the University of St. Andrews during my studies for my master's degree.
Now I don't want you to panic, but there's a mistranslated word in Luke 3:17. Instead of saying that John proclaimed that the mighty one he expected to come had a "winnowing fork" in his hand, it should be a "winnowing shovel."
Believe it or not, that's important. It gets at what was the primary source of tension between Jesus and John, a tension that we see come to a head in Luke 7:18-23. John expected that God was going to send someone not with a winnowing fork, but with a shovel. A winnowing fork was used to separate the wheat (i.e., the good stuff) from the chaff (i.e., the useless stuff). Once the harvesters had separated the wheat from the chaff, they would take their winnowing shovels and literally save the grain, which was good, and shovel the chaff, which was useless, into the fire to be destroyed. John was waiting for someone to come as an instrument of salvation for the righteous and destruction for the unrighteous.
Jesus only delivered half of what John expected. Jesus came for salvation, and if passages like Matthew 5:43-47 are any indication, Jesus didn't seem to discriminate between wheat and chaff, but he treated everyone — the righteous and the unrighteous — as precious. Furthermore, Jesus claimed that it was in this very indiscriminate behavior that he was living out his instruction to "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect."
That kind of behavior wouldn't win a teacher much applause in Jesus' culture. I'm a person who enjoys applause, and I can hardly begin to imagine the kind of inner strength it would take to be as wholly and relentlessly loving as Jesus is in the face of the kind of approbation and persecution Jesus got in return. But what I see in Jesus' deeds as well as in his words is that he was someone who was so deeply in touch with his own status as God's beloved child that he was completely freed to love others as he knew his father loved them. There was no hint of sibling rivalry from Jesus our brother; knowing the Father as he did, Jesus knew that God's infinite love for him was in no way diminished or overshadowed by infinite love for another.
I've never seen real persecution in my life, though I know there are many others around the world who have experienced it firsthand. I sometimes get pretty whiny about the challenges I do find in my life, though, about the occasions on which I feel "dissed" as I try to follow Jesus' example. But when I'm really, deeply in touch with how much God loves me, there's a deep compassion for others, even or especially those doing the dissing, that arises alongside of the sense of God's love for me. When I'm registering what someone is saying to me as disrespectful, I take a look at whether I'm experiencing that kind of compassion for the person speaking. That compassion, or its absence, works for me as a kind of barometer to measure whether my sense that I'm not getting the respect I deserve is springing from a prideful sense of entitlement or out of a real, healthy, and humbling sense of the worthiness God whispered to me in baptism. My impression is that a sense of worthiness that comes from God is accompanied by compassion.
And it's important to me to do what it takes to keep in touch with those whom, in my whiniest moments, I'd like to see some coming Mighty One treat as chaff. Whatever instinct in me wants to make distinctions between us, I have a feeling we're all going to be hanging out together at the harvest, flopping on the threshing floor to make grain/chaff angels in the undifferentiated abundance around us. Let us play!