Sunday, February 03, 2013

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4
Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He 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.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But 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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

At one time, kids were sent off to study history, or geography, or mathematics, but no longer. Why study the ordinary when you can opt for extraordinary, something that will really ‘pop’ when you pass out your c.v.

So here they are, some recent examples of new majors, in no particular order:

University of Connecticut: Puppetry
Carnegie Mellon University: Bagpiping
Green Mountain College: Adventure Education
Florida Southern College: Citrus Studies
North Carolina State: Poultry Science
Cornell and Brock: Viticulture
Kansas State: Bakery Science
Michigan State: Packaging
SUNY Plattsburgh: Canadian Studies
UMassAmhurst: The Bachelor's Degree with Individual Concentration

I began to think about this a while ago when one of my son’s friends told us she was doing a minor in Diaspora Studies. Generally, when we speak of Diaspora (capital D), we are referring to the way in which Jews were dispersed throughout Asia and Europe following the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70CE. But it seems that lately the idea of diaspora has been enlarged to include the movement or migration of any peoples away from their ancestral homeland. That U of T would host this study seems to make great sense, considering the context of the city.

Another unusual major I discovered this week is Encounter Studies, sometimes called New World Studies. It seems to have begun in the Comparative Literature department, comparing and contrasting the literature of Europe after Columbus and the indigenous writing in the centuries that followed first contact.

This was then expanded, under the larger heading of humanities, to include history, economics, and other disciplines, all related to what happens when worlds collide, when cultures meet and are inevitably transformed.

So what began as an encounter between Europe and the Other, whether that meant looking west to the new world, or east to early encounters with Asian cultures, has now grown to look at any cultural exchange (or conflict) that follows contact.

And if I was going to take this new disciple to the Bible, as good a place as any to begin might be Luke 4:

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s boy?’

It seemed a good beginning, this synagogue service, with a recently returned Jesus reading the lesson of the day and declaring that Isaiah’s message of release and recovery has been fulfilled in the hearing of the gathered community. So far, so good.

‘Isn’t that so-and-so’s boy?’ is a question you still might hear in a small town like Mt. Albert or Weston, where accomplishment is acknowledged in the context of family connections and social standing. Jesus is given some credibility even as he begins to speak, because he has come home.

But then the true ‘encounter’ begins. Jesus references recent events in Capernaum, his adopted home, and suggests that the crowd might want to see some of the same signs performed in Nazareth. Then he utters something that falls under the ‘eternal truth’ category, saying ‘no prophet is welcome in his hometown.’ And then he shows them why. He tells them two encounter stories, and neither one pleases the crowd.

First it is Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, found in 1 Kings, where the exiled Elijah reaches out for help. He finds it in a most unexpected place, through this foreign woman, and the encounter generates two miracles: Feeding those present in an echo of the story of the manna in the wilderness, and eventually raising the widow’s dead son to life, the first example of such a miracle in the Bible.

Next is Naaman the Syrian, another foreigner who is the subject of a miracle, this time healed of leprosy when so many within the community were left unattended. In each of these stories, Jesus is introducing the idea that God’s favour does not rest on Israel alone, and that the stories recorded in scripture provide ample proof.

Unhappy, they attempt to march Jesus to the brow of a nearly hill, and toss him off. Somehow he ‘passed through the midst of them,’ which seems to be code for giving them the slip. The next verse finds him back in Capernaum, where they remain amazed by his teaching, and impressed that he speaks with authority.

So the first version of encounter studies is going home, something that may be less familiar for those who never left home, but even for the turtles among us, there are variations on this theme: You leave to experience something unavailable to you locally, perhaps an event or a program, and you return somehow changed.

For Jesus, it was 40 days in the wilderness, and the testing that he faced. For some it is the test of the unfamiliar, or the test of begin stretched in some way or another. Whatever it is, coming home changed is frequently unwelcome. The best advice we give young people to travel to national youth events is ‘go home and report what you learned, don’t try to tell them how it felt because they will never understand.’

So the first example of ‘an encounter’ is pretty much a failure. So what do we do with this early failure in the larger ‘encounter study’ we call incarnation? Just a month ago we were busy celebrating that God had entered our world once more. We were marking that God is now present to us in a vulnerable infant, ready to grow and learn the human way, to experience what we experience in an effort to draw closer to us.

And now it seems, things have gone terribly wrong. Even in his own village, where it should be ‘hometown lad makes good,’ it is a shocking bit of foreshadowing, where the brow of the hill and a hill near Jerusalem take on an eerie semblance.

Could it be that the ultimate encounter in our study of encounters was doomed from the beginning? It might be, but only if we fail to remember that the last words spoken from the cross were ‘forgive them, father, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ Even as we are busy rejecting God and God’s messenger, God is busy reaching out and forgiving us. Even when the encounter goes terribly wrong, the last world remains ‘forgive.’

There is, of course, one more encounter study that remains unwritten, and that would be the encounter between the people of God, those of us entrusted with the message of love and forgiveness, and the people we meet. How this encounter unfolds is not pre-determined, and may bear no resemblance to any hills near Nazareth or Jerusalem.

The first hurdle has already been overcome. I recall with some sadness the first time I visited a church that fit in the ‘one-hour a week’ category, with perfectly polished hardwood floors and an unnatural neatness that was a testament to that congregation’s desire to keep the community out, or at least only let them in in a way that made their sanctuary a sanctuary, and not in a good way.

So we’ve overcome that hurdle, and we have the charming disorder to prove it. But what about opening our doors to the people who don’t obviously need our help? How would we encounter them? What would we say to the people who seem to have things figured out, even though their version of ‘figured out’ doesn’t include God? How would that encounter go? How does our ‘world of meaning,’ the one that includes a loving and forgiving God, meet a world of meaning that says ‘our life is centered on the kids, I guess we worship them.’ Someone actually said that to me, and I have to confess I was speechless. No words at all, and more questions than answers, but the fervent hope that the Spirit will be more generous next time, because such encounters will continue, and likely grow.


Post a Comment

<< Home