Sunday, January 31, 2016

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 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. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

100 years since women in Manitoba won the right to vote—an idea that soon spread across the Dominion—but it would take another 13 years to settle the question of whether women were ‘persons’ at all.

The Persons Case involved who could be appointed to the Senate. Even though women were being elected to legislatures across the country, there were no women appointed to the Senate, owing to the assumption they were not ‘persons’ as described in the BNA Act.

And while it seems absurd that men of the day would use such a flimsy argument to exclude women, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the men: women were not persons as described in the Act. So the Famous Five took the matter to the British Privy Council—seems colonialism wasn’t all bad—and won. In 1929, Canadian women were recognized as persons.

This remarkable bit of our history was commemorated on the $50 dollar bill, until the last government saw fit to replace the Famous Five women of the Persons Case with a picture of an icebreaker. If you have one of these bills, and you find the change to an icebreaker offensive, I suggest you put it on the offering plate and we will give it back to the bank for you.

I share this because our passage today is one of those way-points on the journey from exclusion to inclusion, an early example of challenging the traditional assumptions about who belongs and who does not. It marks the beginning of Jesus’ prophetic ministry, seeking to expand our understanding of grace and who can be described as a person of faith.

The passage begins innocently enough. Jesus is invited to read the lesson, and shares a well-loved passage from Isaiah. Everyone seems pleased for the moment, with some comments at the back about this being Joseph’s lad and how well he’s doing. And then Jesus adds a bit of commentary.

First, he mentions Capernaum, and alludes to his growing fame as a healer. He suggests that ‘prophets are usually not welcome in their hometown, and then he mentions a couple of stories that seem to push everyone’s buttons: the widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. He is threatened with great violence, then somehow he manages to escape the angry crowd.

So what is it about these two stories that make seemingly happy people really mad, really quickly? In the first story, Elijah and the widow of Zarephath(1 Kings), the exiled Elijah reaches out for help. He finds it in a most unexpected place, through a foreign woman, and the encounter generates two miracles: Feeding those present and eventually raising the widow’s dead son to life, the first example of such a miracle in the Bible. The next story is Naaman the Syrian, another foreigner who is the subject of a miracle, this time healed of leprosy by a prophet of Israel when no one in his own land could treat or cure the illness.

Both are Bible stories, both familiar to a congregation that read through the Bible in worship. Yet somehow the promise of God’s healing in Isaiah and a reference to God’s decision to heal people outside the covenant made people really mad. We have to assume that these stories were easy enough to ignore, until Jesus decides to set them in the same context—the new age.

And that takes us back to the original reading, the part before the part that Judith shared, the feel-good passage that made the good people of Nazareth happy before Jesus’ comments made them so mad. He opened the scroll and read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We have to assume that the congregation heard these promises and saw themselves or people they knew: poor, imprisoned, blind, oppressed, and in need of release. They lived in the shadow of Sepphoris, one of the new Roman towns that provided a few jobs but mostly reinforced their status as a conquered people. When they imagined the fulfillment of promises—healing and freedom—they though that it would be for them alone. They weren’t prepared to be reminded that God decides who receives the Lord’s favour.

So a theme is born. Jesus spends time with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus’ parable extends grace to the prodigal when the older brother was the loyal one who stayed home to tend the farm. Jesus engages with men and women, teaching and learning as he steps outside traditional boundaries.

And it doesn’t end there: Peter has a vision of the foods permitted in this new age as he welcomes a gentile household into the family of God. Paul and Silas take the Gospel to Europe, and the very first convert is Lydia, a businesswoman, who allows the household to baptized and insists Paul and Silas remain in her home. But the real shift will come in Syria, in Roman Antioch, where the mission to gentiles is most successful.

Antioch is one of the greatest cities of the age, with half-a-million inhabitants and a proud heritage that goes back to one of Alexander’s generals. It’s the New York City of it’s day, enjoying favour from emperors as the centre of imperial power shifts to the east. And it has a very large Jewish population, which soon means it also has a large Christian population too.

Somehow Antioch becomes sharply divided between those who want to simply welcome gentile converts to the way of Jesus and those who want to have them become Jewish first and then follow Jesus. And the mark of this is circumcision. Obviously painful for adults, it was a troubling barrier to welcoming gentiles into the community.

Then the story moves to Jerusalem. In the first church council, representatives of the churches gather in Jerusalem to settle the question. On one side is James the brother of Jesus, making the case for become Jewish first, and on the other side is Paul, making the counter-argument.

Described in Acts 15, Peter speaks, Paul and Barnabas describe their mission, and finally James speaks, convinced by what he has heard. He agrees that the Spirit is suggesting it should not be difficult for gentiles to join the church, and—in good meeting fashion—they draft a motion to be sent to the churches.

And so the exponential growth that the church sees over the next centuries can be traced back to this decision. The Spirit cannot be contained, an the life-giving message of new life in Christ spreads throughout the known world. Yet somehow the instinct to exclude rather than include remains, despite the best example set by the Council of Jerusalem.

Even in so-called Christian societies, we are challenged to include rather than exclude. From a dispute that begins in the church in Roman Syria to a refugee crisis that forces Syrians to flee to the west, we still witness the clash between voices that would open the doors and voices that are content to let those in peril remain there.

And it’s doesn’t need to be as dramatic as the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Wave after wave of immigrants to this country faced various degrees of hostility until the next wave came to take their place. One hundred years ago it would not be uncommon to see a sign in a shop window in our city that said “no dogs, no Irish,” or my father’s experience of being labelled a DP and invited to go home in language too colourful for church. Or the Italians that followed, and the West Indians, and finally people from all parts of Asia—each wave assuming the mantle of unwanted newcomer as the previous wave was largely accepted.

And through each of these waves—when the church was at it’s very best—we are the counter-cultural voice. Beginning with the teachings of Jesus, following through on the Council of Jerusalem, even supporting Famous Five member Nellie McClung—an elder of the church. When we at our best we are the voice of acceptance and inclusion.

May God’s Spirit continue to move through the churches, that we be an example of mercy and love, now and always. Amen.


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