Monday, February 04, 2013

Sermon, Epiphany 4C, Luke 4:21-30

On Epiphany Sunday I talked about journeys; and specifically, faith journeys.  I think our faith journey, when tracked on the liturgical calendar, begins on Epiphany with the recognition and revelation that God came to live amongst the nations of the world.  In other words, with the Epiphany story, God is now accessible to all people everywhere.

The Epiphany story makes that abundantly clear with its incorporation of the (unnumbered) wise men.  These were men “from the East,” not Jews, who saw the sign of God and followed it to Bethlehem.  Origen first set their number at three, most likely because of the three named gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  But somebody recently pointed something out that I hadn’t heard or thought of before:  that there were three wise men in remembrance of Shem, Ham and Japheth – the three sons of Noah who were basically the ancestors of the whole post-flood world.

In the Epiphany story we see a gathering back together under God the nations of the world, as opposed to the separation from God experienced after the flood.  Epiphany is, in some ways, the forerunner to Pentecost.

The wise men are the first outsiders to make that faith journey towards God that leads them to unexpected places.  Well . . . that’s not exactly true.  There were other outsiders who made unexpected journeys of faith.  There was Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho; Ruth, a Moabite widow; a widow of Zerapheth in Sidon; and Naaman, the Syrian.  All of these people, in addition to the wise men, were sent on unexpected faith journeys either because of their own faith in God, or because of God’s desire to include them in his loving embrace.

These examples – a Gentile prostitute, a Moabite widow, a Sidonian widow, a Syrian general, wise men “from the East” – are just five instances where God opens up his arms, and welcomes and includes the outsider and unclean to be part of his kingdom.

The problem though, isn’t with God’s desire to welcome and include outsiders; the problem is with those of us already on the inside.  The problem is with those of us who see ourselves as more privileged or more special or more deserving than Those Others.  The problem is with those of us who see the inclusion of Others and outsiders as taking away our special status.  The problem is with those of us who believe that God and ourselves need to be protected from Those People.

These two things – the enormity of God’s grace and inclusion of outsiders, and the desire of insiders to remain a people of privilege, limiting who has access to God – run up against each other today.  In the gospel, Jesus is in his hometown and he tells those around him that today this scripture is fulfilled in their midst (that would be the scripture proclaiming release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed).

The people spoke well of him, but then began to question, “Isn’t this old Joe’s son?”  Picking up on their skepticism, Jesus begins to whittle away at their understanding of God and their belief in their own privileged status as God’s chosen people.

Jesus said there were a lot of widows in Israel, but Elijah went to a foreigner, an outsider, to whom God granted bread of life so that she and her son wouldn’t die.  And there were many lepers in Israel during Elisha’s time, but only Naaman the Syrian, a foreigner and outsider, was cleansed by the grace of God.

Jesus was pointing out that God is open to all.  He was pointing out that God has no boundaries; it is us who make boundaries in order to keep Those People away from OUR God.  And this upset the people so much that they tried to toss him off a cliff.

Jesus tried to take the people of his hometown on a journey of faith.  He tried to take them on a journey that opened up both scripture and God to all people.  But that particular journey was too unexpected, too scary for people who had always read scripture as a closed book that only allowed the right kinds of people access to God.  It was too much for them, and, unwilling to make the journey, they responded with violence.

We have seen this very thing in our own country.  “All men are created equal” – as long as they are white Protestants.  How long were people denied the equality that our own Declaration of Independence grants based on nothing more than skin color?  And when people of color began demanding equal treatment, when Brown vs. the Board of Education decision was handed down, when black people tried to register to vote, what happened?  The answer includes fire hoses, attack dogs, protests, lynchings and shootings.  This all happened because the majority couldn’t stand the thought of Those People being equal to ourselves.

No matter the time or place, when the privileged majority is faced with issues of inclusion, acceptance and equality, they fight to keep the Other out.  And when forced to confront their fears and prejudices, violence is often the end result.  It happened to Jesus in his hometown, it happened in our own history and it happens today.

The conflict between the crowd and Jesus was a result of differing scriptural interpretations.  One side interprets scripture through a lens of privilege and exclusivity, setting up barriers to keep certain people from accessing and experiencing God.  The other side interprets scripture through a lens of equality and inclusion, working to break down those man-made barriers and welcome all people into God’s kingdom.

One of my commentaries nicely summarizes today’s gospel story this way:  Jesus doesn’t go elsewhere because he is rejected; Jesus is rejected because he goes elsewhere.

As you continue on your own Epiphany faith journey, are you allowing God to take you to unexpected places?  Are you letting the light of that star take you where you’ve never been before?  More importantly, are you letting Jesus lead you to a new, open place, or are you staying with the crowd, insisting that your scriptural barriers are necessary to protect God and ourselves from Those People?  I hope you are willing to make an unexpected journey.



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