Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4
21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers* in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They 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. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

It should not surprise you that Barney and Friends is on the list of worst television programs ever made. Parents and grandparents with the song “I love you” to the tune of “This Old Man” stuck in their head are not accountable for whatever it takes to get it out.

Also on the list of worst TV shows of all time: My Mother the Car, Homeboys from Outer Space, The Jerry Springer Show, and The Swan, famous for showing and promoting plastic surgery. The list makers even gave us a little Canadian content, adding The Trouble with Tracy, mostly for bad production values.

If I have given you flashbacks or you are newly resolved to head home and get a fresh dose of Barney, you’ll have to wait. The list-worthy show that really intrigues me is Hogan’s Heroes. I’m left to wonder about the initial meeting where someone pitched the show to a network: “It’s a comedy, set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, with goofy guards and clever inmates, all working together to laugh at the rest of the war.”

Weirdly, it managed six seasons on CBS and was nominated three times for “Best Series” honours. Equally weird, the show is praised for holding to the original vision (it never “jumped the shark” [see me later for details]) and is also praised for the wonderful irony of using German-American actors who were all Jewish and all served in the US Army during the war.

Overall, I wonder about the psychology of Hogan’s Heroes. Not the willful ignorance of Klink and Schultz or their well-founded fear of the Russian Front, but the timing of a series that depicts German’s in a playful light. The show began in 1965, and that twenty year gap between the end of the war and this odd little show seems about as much time needed to begin to imagine a former enemy in a new way. It would take a few more years (1981, Das Boot) for audiences to accept a dramatic portrayal of action from a German point-of-view.

My father recounts the story of attending a course on navigation through the Canadian Power Squadron some time during the seventies. While the German-Canadian instructor described to the class various ways he used to identify the position of the “enemy,” my father leaned over to the Royal Navy veteran beside him to say “I think he’s talking about you.” Luckily, this is Canada, the place where we can leave the past behind and make new beginnings.

Israel, on the other hand, was not a place where you can leave the past behind and make new beginnings. In many ways it still isn’t. But in Nazareth, the day Jesus decided to accept a preaching gig at the local synagogue, past was still very present to the crowd that day.

It began with last week’s reading, when Jesus unrolled the scroll and announced the Jubilee Year: releasing the captives, sharing Good News with the poor and the rest. The crowd seemed pleased. “So this is Joseph’s boy?” one says, “it seems he can preach!” But Jesus had more to say:

I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian."

Now, stories of Elijah and Elisha were already ancient history, more than 800 years old and already passing into the territory of legend. But that didn’t seem to matter to the good folks of Nazareth that day. They were deeply upset by this young upstart who took pains to remind them that the blessing of God extended to non-Jews. In both stories, the widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, the blessing of God is extended to someone outside the Covenant, outside what is considered the normal purview of the “God of Israel.”

And so they’re mad. Mad enough, it seems to rush the lad to the edge of a cliff, and threaten to hurl him off. I served two church atop the Scarborough Bluffs, and always kept this passage in mind when writing. But like Jesus, I slipped away, and found safety in Weston, where prophetic speech is welcome and even encouraged.

Years ago I attended a Stewardship Conference held at the Harbour Castle downtown: we were greeted by the Very Reverend Dr. Stan McKay, former moderator of United Church of Canada, and first aboriginal to hold that post. First, he welcomed our American guests to Canada. He welcomed everyone to Turtle Island, the traditional name for North America, and then he welcomed us to the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. Finally, he reminded the group that all of Toronto, and much of the surrounding area is subject to an outstanding land claim.

Reactions differed. Our guests had that intrigued look when you discover something really unusual and say “huh!” Locals had a more mixed response, not so much anger as polite discomfort and the nagging sense that this was something that would be hard to put out of your mind. I have to say it made quite an impression on me, as it was clearly meant too.

And the impression is not based on the possibility of losing our 12 feet of frontage on a lovely East York street: rather, based on the notion that what seems far away from our experience is really as close as right here. I can tell you that the Mississaugas of the New Credit are close to a settlement, and we won’t be losing our lovely church or Mugwort Manor (our house in EY). Instead, the band will receive an upgraded purchase price from the original 10 shillings paid for much of Southern Ontario (about 65 cents).

I wouldn’t say our prophet Moderator Stan was unwelcome in his own land, but he did use the very same technique as Jesus. Recognition and affirmation, followed by a difficult truth that the people need to face. It was not a conference about aboriginal land claims, it was a conference on stewardship. But Dr. Mackay knew that justice and stewardship go hand in hand, and that giving gifts and using gifts must always happen in the context of right relationships and justice observed. It was Walter Brugguemann who said that justice means finding out what belongs to whom, and returning it to them.

Likewise, Jesus said that freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight, and release for the oppressed, were about to be made manifest. And it pleased the crowd to know that the Year of the Lord was at hand, and these things would come to pass. But them the truth.

Like the parables of Jesus, a world is constructed, then sours, then we are left to figure out our place in this new reality. Jubilee is proclaimed, then sours (the Year of the Lord belongs to everyone, even non-Jews), and the people are left to decide what to do. In this case, they are mad, and vaguely homicidal, but not enough to actually follow through. That will have to wait until later on, three years on, when the combined pressure of all that grace, all that healing, all the inbreaking of God’s Spirit will finally be too much for this sinful world, and Jesus would find himself on a cross. But until then, he will carry on his way, preaching the Kingdom and sharing more parables.

Jesus said, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town” and in many ways it is still true. Many great women and men traveled to far off places to have their greatness recognized before returning to an adoring public at home. The Nobel Peace Prize is practically based on this principle, which is why a 35 year-old pastor from Atlanta received the prize in 1964, only a few months after writing his famous letter from the Birmingham Jail. Dr. King wrote that, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” a reality he fought until his own murder five years later. There are many reasons the world resists the Year of the Lord, the reign of justice and the end of oppression. May we continue to be a voice for the voiceless, and always prophetic, welcome or not. Amen.


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