A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. Terry Pannell
4th Sunday after Epiphany†††† ††††††††† ††††††††† The Reverend Terry Pannell
Year C†††††††† †††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††† ††††††††† The Church of the Holy Cross
Text: †Luke 4: 21-32†††††† †††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††† Shreveport, Louisiana††††
††††††† †††††††††† ††††††††† ††††††††† †††††††††††††††††† ††††††††† February 1, 2004
Based on todayís gospel reading, I think it is safe to say that Jesus must have touched a nerve in some people. How else can we explain the reaction of his neighbors? †Only minutes earlier, the crowd liked what Jesus had to say. In fact the congregation was quite taken with him.† Perhaps they were proud that a hometown boy like Jesus had risen to the ranks of celebrity on the prophet circuit. Everyone was impressed with his gracious words.
So why the sudden change in people who at first had admired Jesus but then turned on him in anger?† After all, Jesus had brought good news to his hometown congregation. They were the first to hear that Isaiahís prophecy had been fulfilled. A prophecy about the messiah who would bring good news to the poor, heal the blind, and liberate the oppressed.† Jesus who proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord found himself unacceptable among his own people. Perhaps if he had just stopped while he was ahead everything would have been fine.† †
No doubt, the crowd was caught off guard when Jesus said that bit about doing for your hometown what you did at Capernaum. †Perhaps they felt they were entitled to a miracle or two. †Surely if wonders could be performed in a predominately Gentile town like Capernaum, a Jewish town like Nazareth could expect to see even greater things.† But sadly there would be no miracles that day.
Obviously the congregation expected one thing and Jesus did another. †Now we should not be surprised. Jesus is notorious for turning the tables on people, especially when they have the wrong expectations. †And thatís what we have in todayís gospel; people who have wrong expectations about Jesus.
Most first century Jews believed that Godís blessings were reserved for Israel.† They expected the coming messiah to destroy their enemies, not to bless them. So for Jesus to refer to a story where God blesses a Gentile woman and her son during a famine is one thing. But for him to suggest that God would bless an enemy soldier from Syria was more than the congregation could stand. †
It is difficult for those of us ††††††††† who live in a pluralistic Western society to understand the importance of identity among people from a Semitic culture, especially from Jesusí time.† Being Jewish was more than just being a member of a particular religion.† It incorporated every facet of life.† Oneís identity was understood within the context of family, clan, tribe, language, history, culture, ethics, morality, worship and geography.† And all these things contributed in a symbiotic way to oneís Jewish identity.† So you can understand how a suggestion from a fellow Jew that God also favored Gentiles would offend the congregation.†
Yes, Jesus simply went too far.† But thatís the point of todayís gospel.† God goes too far. †God loves all the wrong kinds of people.† Imagine that! A God who loves the ritually impure and foreigners.† Even the enemy no less! †People who donít quite measure up to the religious standards of the day.† But then, †Jesus is not concerned here with religious standards.† What he is concerned with is Godís standard; the standard of unconditional love that extends to everyone. The kind of love that is self-giving and self-sacrificing.† The kind that reconciles people to God and to one another and in doing so necessarily redefines oneís identity.† †
We Christians say that God loves everyone. However, Christians have at times behaved in ways that have contradicted that profession.† God has even sent a prophet or two to challenge us to live into what we profess.† And just as history repeats itself, these prophets too have found themselves unwelcome in their communities.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged this nation to manifest Godís love by doing justice by recognizing people of color as full and equal citizens in every possible aspect within American society.†† Some people though, many of whom could be found in church on Sunday mornings, reacted with violence. King obviously touched a nerve in people who thought he was going too far.
And when some deacons in the Episcopal Church had the faith to answer Godís call to the priesthood, they and the bishops who ordained them in Philadelphia were met with contempt and threats.
It seems that ordaining women went too far for some people and it touched a nerve.† Unfortunately it still does in some places.
Three months ago, the Diocese of New Hampshire went too far and consecrated †††††† a non-celibate gay man as their bishop. And yes, it has touched a nerve in some people.† Now while I have no doubt that some would like nothing more than to hurl Bishop Robinson off a cliff, along with the bishops who served as co-consecrators, the fact is, we donít do that kind of thing nowadays.† Besides, it would be so un-Episcopalian to hurl our bishops off a cliff!
Instead we hear Jesusí name being dragged about in support of views either condemning or supporting Bishop Robinsonís consecration. Add to that the hyperbole and the threats of schism generated by a vocal minority within the Episcopal Church, and I would venture to say that too many nerves are being touched right now. †
Yet it is interesting to see how people within the same community of faith react when these kinds of things happen.† All the wrong kinds of people begin to show up at our doorsteps with their invitation from God to join everyone else at the table. It is then that peopleís true feelings are revealed. Todayís gospel reading is a good example. †Both Jesus and the Nazoreans were Jewish. Yet each interpreted Isaiahís words differently. †And each reacted differently.
God though has the final word when it comes to love.† A prophet filled with the Spirit must speak the words God has given, even if the prophet faces rejection.† Now Jesus could have reacted in kind toward the crowd that day.† In fact, he could have told them all to go to hell.† And you know what that would have meant!†
But Jesus did not do this. Nor did he walk out of the synagogue in protest and form an exclusive sect within Judaism.† Between the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots, ††††††††† Judaism already had more than enough splinter groups.† Jesus did however advocate the Kingdom of God; a kingdom built upon love and open to everyone.
Jesus did not meet behind closed doors with his disciples to plan strategy on how they could take over the Temple in Jerusalem.† Thatís because Jesusí strategy relied on self-giving, self-sacrificing love to bring about the Kingdom of God.†
Instead of relying on whatever means necessary to achieve victory over his enemies, Jesus used the only mean that has ever worked to bring about true change in this world.† And that is a change of heart.† But then, a change of heart is a sign of Godís transforming love.† The same type you find in the Kingdom of God.†
Sometimes God has to go too far in order get our attention.† Perhaps it is Godís way of radically healing our blindness to the suffering of others who have been excluded from love for too long. When we see the wrong kinds of people coming forward to accept their place at Godís table, it should serve as a sign that prompts us to reflect upon what it means to profess that God loves everyone. †And it challenges us to determine how we will live that which we profess.† That has been and continues to be the challenge that every Christian faces.† And so, what is one to do?
That day in his hometown synagogue, Jesus professed that God loved Gentiles as well as Jews.† But instead of condemning those who objected to what he said, Jesus went about his business not of changing minds, but changing hearts.† And it is through Godís grace that our hearts are being transformed so that all may live the good news. For that is what must take place for love to flourish in any community of faith.
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