Sunday, February 03, 2019

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4
21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “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.

What do we deserve?

It’s one of those questions that’s akin to quicksand— the more you struggle to answer the question, the more stuck you become. So we can begin with the basics: we all deserve a warm place to sleep, enough food to live, and some companions on the way. After that, it becomes tricky.

Politicians will tell you that that we all deserve to be middle-class, with a steady income, some savings, and a plan for retirement. This idea usually includes more specific items too: house, car, cottage or trailer, vacation in the sunny south, college for kids, and so on. But then the speech ends, or it splits off in different directions.

On one hand, the left hand, these things come through a progressive tax code, and the right to collective bargaining, and a government willing to safeguard the social safety net. On the other hand, the right hand, it’s moderate taxation that doesn’t stifle the entrepreneurial spirit, support for business and markets (who seem to have a mind of their own) and services that the public purse can realistically afford.

Until recently, these were the two messages we heard, beginning with what you deserve and applying contrasting lessons on how to get what you deserve. Until a new voice entered the conversation. This voice agrees that everyone should be able to realize their dreams, middle-class or beyond, and then the vision sours. “There are others,” this voice insists, “that are actively trying to steal what is yours.”

This leads to a list of others, with descriptors attached—scary, disgusting, immoral—and a parallel list of possible solutions: deportation, prison, eradication, and so on. Enemies are identified and quickly dehumanized, since it is always easier to convince someone of a drastic measure when you’re trying to defeat ‘animals’ rather than humans. This voice says “you deserve to be safe,” even if you didn’t feel unsafe in the first place.

It should not surprize us that this new conversation has left traditional politicians and thinkers at a loss. Generally, your opponent didn’t just make stuff up, and if they did, you could defeat them with facts, or logic, or the good old fashioned truth. We have learned in this new age that some would rather be lied to—and seem to relish it—if the lies unsettle the existing order. Norms are gone, decency is gone, and truth has become the relic of a bygone age.

Now you’re really looking forward to lunch. Why so cranky, preacher? Is it the polar vortex, a split-decision on Groundhog Day, or another birthday come and gone? Actually, our passage today is all about the preacher’s dilemma: do you tell-it-like-it-is or do you apply a thin sugary-coating to the message and carry on to lunch?

So Jesus decides to tell it like it is. ‘You’ve all been so kind,’ he says, ‘you remember me and my kin, and you’ve obviously been following me on Instagram. You’ve heard about the all the healing, and the various signs that even I struggle to explain. And maybe you think you deserve the same, since it took a village to raise me, but that’s not how it works. God decides who deserves what—and won’t be compelled to do anything.’

‘You want examples?’ he said. ‘Many people were hungry in the time of Elijah, but he went to the widow of Zarephath instead, even raising her child from the dead. And there were lots of lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, but he healed Naaman the Syrian while the others looked on.’ They were cut to the quick, his formerly proud friends and neighbours, and made a plan to silence him for good. But he slipped away.

Think of it as the place where human nature meets classical wisdom thinking. Human nature says give me some advantage or special treatment because of proximity: you know me, we’re neighbours, we come from the same place. And classical wisdom thinking says the good shall prosper (like church-goers) while the wicked suffer. It’s a powerful combination: ‘Jesus, we know you and we’re good people, so give us what we deserve—a sign, a local miracle, something to make us the talk of the Galilee.’

But God decides what we deserve and when we deserve it, and the deliberations are done in secret, a mystery to our eyes. And while this frustrates all of us—the faithful, the faithful who feel entitled—we can only remain frustrated by the lack of transparency that seems to define the Most High.

I say ‘seems to define’ because we’re just verses from last week’s lesson—so close that it’s really just one long lesson anyway. Last week Jesus read from the scroll: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom from oppression, and a jubilee year, an idea that sends shivers down the spine of every banker and debt collector in the land.

So yes, God lacks transparency, but definitely has a weakness for the weak. From last week, if you are in need for good news, or freedom from any form of imprisonment, or new sight, or the need to escape oppression—especially if you oppress yourself—God is on your side. God loves the oppressor AND oppressed, but is always going to help the latter overcome the former.

The crowd in Nazareth, however, likely didn’t fit into either category. Like the rest of us, they may have taken on one role or the other, depending on the day of the week, but by-in-large they were just busy trying to get on with their lives. Jesus’ visit must have seemed like an opportunity, a chance to shake things up, maybe a way a ‘make Nazareth great again,’ but it was not to be. Jesus wanted to say pleasant things about foreigners instead.

Their anger, their desire to take him to the edge of the cliff outside town, is really just some not-so-subtle foreshadowing, a look ahead to Holy Week and another set of onlookers who would become an angry mob. And the reasons are more-or-less the same, disappointment turned to anger, and anger expressed in violence. On the next occasion there would be no walking away—another story for another time.

We dwell instead on the impulse: when God is near we expect special treatment, to get what we deserve, some advantage over others. It’s not really clear what the Nazarenes were looking for, maybe just a bigger dot on the map, but by the time we get to Holy Week it all becomes clear.

By the time we get to Holy Week it’s obvious that a ‘revolution of the heart’ was not going to cut it. People wanted an end to the existing order, they wanted a conquering hero, they wanted less metaphorical King of the Jews. But the climax of the week unfolded this way instead:

"Put your sword away," Jesus said, at the very moment of his arrest. "Don't you know that if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword? You know I could call on a legion of angels anytime to do my bidding? Am I leading a rebellion? See, I am surrendering to you, that the writing of the prophets might be fulfilled." The passage concludes with the saddest note in scripture: "Then all his disciples deserted him and fled."

Again, another story for another time, but we got what we deserved. Dying and alone, save the criminals that hung beside him, God-in-Jesus looked at our sorry state, authors of desertion and betrayal, and gave us what we deserved, saying “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing.”

Even in the act of killing God, God forgives. If God decides that that’s an act worth forgiving, what smallness do we cling to? If God can forgive an attempt on God’s own life, what could we possibly do that God won’t forgive?

Think of all the forgiveness in scripture: the prodigal son, the people of Nineveh, even Saul of Tarsus, and imagine that behind each example there was disappointment. The older brother, old fish-guts Jonah, everyone who met St. Paul in his former life: we learn that even forgiveness is hard to accept and even harder to do. But God forgives that too, just to make point.

We want favour, and God gives forgiveness. We want a reward for being good, and God gives forgiveness. We want to be lied to about all that we deserve, and God gives us forgiveness instead. You would think we could spot the pattern, but we can’t, and God forgives that too.

May the God of forgiveness give us what we deserve, and may we extend that to others, in Jesus’ name, Amen.


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