Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Jeremiah 1:4-10 - link to NRSV text
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 - link to NRSV text
Luke 4:21-30 - link to NRSV text
I want to start this week with a shout-out to the Rev. (congratulations on your ordination!) Gabri Ferrer of All Saints' parish in Beverly Hills, who gave me some of the best advice I've ever received as a leader.
Gabri says that at any given point in time, there are twelve people in the world who hate you, who think that you're what's wrong with the church, with the nation, with the world, and you just might be some kind of incarnation of Satan. So when you meet someone who thinks everything you do is awful, there's no need to panic; just say to yourself, "Oh, s/he must be one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who has such an unrealistically negative view of you, you can assume that another of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you and now has a less negative view.
Over time, I decided that there's an important corollary to that piece of advice. At any given point in time, there are twelve people who have an unrealistically HIGH view of you -- who think of you as something like Jesus, Gandhi, and Bono all in one wise, all-caring, charismatic package. So when you meet someone who seems to think that about you, there's no need to panic; you can just say to yourself, "Ah -- one of the twelve." And by the time you meet a thirteenth person who seems to feel that way, you can be sure that one of the twelve has changed her/his mind about you, either adopting a more realistic view of your strengths and foibles or -- more likely, in my experience -- becoming one of the twelve who think you're absolute evil.
Any advice for leaders that includes the words, "don't panic" can't be all bad, but I've found the usefulness of this advice to extend far beyond that, especially when exercising leadership in Christian congregations.
Too often, people think of Christianity as a kind of self-improvement program that makes people nicer and more respectable, in particular by encouraging them to follow rules according to a kind of "don't rock the boat if you want smooth sailing" philosophy. And too often, leaders in Christian communities tend to function as if this philosophy were discipleship and institutional smooth sailing were their charge to keep.
But take a look at the extreme reactions that Jesus' ministry provokes in this Sunday's gospel reading. He's just read the selections (and yes, he was very selective in choosing them!) from Isaiah that he's claiming as his mission and the focus of his ministry, and the crowd's immediate response is just the sort of thing ever preacher loves: "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Jesus is, well, bigger than Jesus. Success!
And then look at what's happening just a few lines of text further:
"All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff." Disaster!
Or is it? Does the crowd's acclaim mean that Jesus was saying and doing "the right thing"? Does the crowd's rage mean that Jesus had said or done "the wrong thing"?
I don't think so on either count. Jesus' selections from Isaiah and his claim that "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" delivered a prophetic and deeply challenging message. If anything, it may have been the case that the crowd's apparent pleasure at his message suggested that they hadn't grasped its implications. But Jesus spells out an important one as he revisits other points in Israel's history when God sent a prophet: prophets of Israel minister to, heal, and empower outsiders -- Gentiles as well as Jews. It would be an understatement to say that this message doesn't go over well with the crowd in Jesus' hometown, but it would be foolishness to suggest that this means Jesus ought not to have delivered it.
What can we say? Jesus' manner of life -- his teaching, his healing, his prophetic ministry -- posed a profound challenge to his community. Nor do I think we ought to take this Sunday's gospel as a lesson that he should have restricted those activities to places where or people to whom they'd prove less upsetting. Perhaps one good lesson would be that it can be dangerous to choose a pulpit too close to a cliff, but even that is a trivial and not particularly helpful insight.
And whatever we say about this Sunday's gospel, please let's not say that it is in any way about the small-mindedness of Jews in Jesus' day or any other. It's antisemitic and obnoxious as well as grossly misleading. There was and, I dare say, is a great deal that can be hard about carrying on a prophetic ministry in one's hometown. In Jesus' culture, honor, like all things of value, was seen as being in limited supply; if one person had more, of necessity they must have taken it from someone else. So if Jesus is winning honor and acclaim in his hometown, people are going to be asking from which of his neighbors he was taking it. We may not live in an honor-shame culture, but similar dynamics happen all the time; we behave in community as though honor, appreciation, gratitude, admiration, and love were limited quantities to be guarded jealously, not renewable resources to be offered freely to strangers as well as neighbors and family members -- as freely and graciously as God gives.
That's one of many reasons it can be hard to stay and be a change agent. In some ways, it's a great deal of fun to be a guest preacher: I show up and people buy me dinner, treat me with respect, say kind things about my blog and my sermon, and as a guest I can say a great deal that's challenging without fear of being rushed off any nearby precipices. But I sure miss exercising and growing into ministry in contexts in which our journeys with one another -- our living with one another with our foibles and failing as well as our strengths and triumphs -- make clear just how little of Jesus' ministry among us is about glamor and dazzle and getting the show on.
That's one reason I find Benedictine practice helpful, though by temperament I'm far more Franciscan. I'm attracted to the grand gesture. I think my favorite hymn stanza is from "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross":
Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an off'ring far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
When I was in college in particular, I had romantic imaginings of being a missionary, living in cultures radically different from my own, radically sharing the poverty of those with whom I journeyed, and in general doing lots of things to which the word "radical" could be attached. A call to long-term overseas missionary work has eluded me to this point, though, and I must say that I've grown a great deal in the challenges of what the Benedictines call "stability."
Stability suggests that we maintain practices of discernment to stay open to a new call, but we minister where we are until such a call is discerned. Sometimes I think there's no discipline harder for a Tigger-like ENFP Franciscan like me. Often I thank God for all I've learned in my inept attempts to exercise and grow in it, though. I've learned that it is in some ways all too easy for many of us to mistake glib showmanship for prophetic ministry unless we are surrounded by people who know one another well and who tell one another the truth, more (or less -- others are allowed flaws too in these communities!) gently and lovingly, to the best of their ability. Neither the embarrassment of undeserved praise nor the pain of being on the receiving end of someone's anger will tell us whether we are where we are called to be or doing what we are called to do. Nor can we draw up a job description for prophetic ministry and run our lives according to it -- had Jeremiah done that (or Moses, or Isaiah, or ...), God's people would have been deprived the voice of the prophet God was calling.
But if we can't measure our ministry by others' reactions, if we're not going to take our cues from either the twelve who think we're Mahatma Bono McJesus or the twelve who want to rush us over the cliff edge, by what do we measure ministry?
St. Paul gives us a helpful suggestion in 1 Corinthians 13 -- a passage written to address how we engage in discernment around the exercise of spiritual gifts in community, not as a guide to romance or marriage. Paul tells us that the measure of all things is love.
If I preach eloquent sermons but don't engage in the hard and rewarding work of 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm just making noise. If I inspire my community to increasing stretches of centering prayer and bible study but not to engage with one another and with the world in 1 Corinthians 13-style love, I'm a failure. And if my companions on the journey of faith don't lovingly hold me to love's measure, they have failed me too.
Church growth and psychological fads and charismatic leaders will come and go, as will every sort of real, imagined, or manufactured crisis, and though we do catch glimpses of who we are and what we are called to be in Christ, they are imperfect and passing. But now, amidst whatever else is going on, faith, hope, and love abide. May we abide in increasing fulness in love, the greatest of these.
Thanks be to God!
Thank you Dylan--I found this commentary
very helpful as I prepare to preach tommorow
and weekly go through the dynamics you describe.
Posted by: Steven Hagerman | Jan 27, 2007 6:07:24 PM
good stuff. keep up the good commentary.
Posted by: Drew | Jan 28, 2007 9:39:02 AM
Thank you for speaking truth in love. I really appreciated your reflection...and humor! :-)
Another ENFP preacher
Posted by: Christy | Jan 28, 2010 12:21:22 PM
i read this for the first time, just now... crazy beautiful.
oh, how i miss you!
Posted by: Gabriel Ferrer | Jan 29, 2016 11:13:18 PM