4th Sunday after the Epiphany: C                        Jeremiah 1:4-10; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

 

The Rev. Dr. Helen R. Betenbaugh HBWHEELS@aol.com

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Wichita, Kansas

 

Today’s Gospel is a startling one. It picks up right where last week’s left off; in fact, with verse 21, which ended last week’s reading, being repeated this morning as the first verse of today’s. Jesus had gone home to read the lesson in the synagogue, a lesson from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. . . ” to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. 

 

The crowd then asks what appears to be a benign question, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” We in 2001 probably hear this as a sign of surprise that this “hometown boy” could have spoken so well and made such a dramatic and yet confident claim about his own vocation. It may well have been just that, for he did not have the rabbinical training that would have taught him to read as he did. But the question surely had an additional set of issues imbedded in it, far harder for our ears to hear. We’re used to a commoner wedding royalty; to a boy born in a log cabin in Kentucky or raised by a single mom in Hope, Arkansas, becoming President, to a woman just named the first Black President of an Ivy League school.[1] But this is now, and then socio-economic lines were fixed, permanent, unchanging. Joseph was a carpenter. Therefore Joseph’s sons would be carpenters. Period. Jesus had crossed a line marked by a bold “No Trespassing” sign.

 

May I remind you of what I said last week? –  that we’re at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry here, following immediately after his Baptism by John and subsequent temptation in the wilderness. Already he’s crossing boundaries, for he identifies with Elijah, whose story we read a few months ago, staying in the home of a widow who was saved from starvation by her generosity. He identifies with Elisha, who healed only one of all the lepers he encountered. The widow was a Gentile; the leper was a Syrian.

 

During recent months I’ve said to the Vestry and to many of you that we don’t see red when words like “Gentile” or “Syrian” or “Samaritan” or “leper” are used. They simply don’t carry emotional weight for us; they don’t push any buttons. So consider these folk of whom Jesus speaks the welfare mother, the Mexican, the homosexual person of their day.

 

That’s what made these folks see red, that’s what made them chase him to the edge of a cliff so they could throw him off and kill him. He’s telling them he’s not only crossing inappropriate lines given his social status, but he’s also going to keep doing it –  he’s going to heal those people, those outsiders, those despised, instead of his hometown friends. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” becomes not a question out of curiosity but an indictment of place and decorum. He’s just said that prophets are not accepted in their hometowns, and the people prove it — in spades!

 


The Church in its wisdom puts I Corinthians 13 into our lectionary as a companion text to this Lukan passage. This, Paul’s so-called “hymn to love,” is relevant for us today if it is put in context. The beauty of the language obscures the practical, exhortative force of the words; words written to a conflicted congregation, caught up in a distorted spirituality, engaged in intense power struggles. So we must put it back into its place in the dispute in Corinth over spiritual gifts and see these words as exhortation for a confused congregation. These words “have an earthy, practical force to them precisely because they are sent to a quarrelsome people who need to know that their fervent religiosity isn’t worth a tinker’s damn apart from a new relationship to one another.”[2] Chapter 12 speaks about why the body requires a diversity of members (gifts), and Chapter 14 shows how diverse gifts serve to build up the community. And in 13, this passage, some 15 verbs show concretely what love accomplishes.

 

I’m always puzzled when someone seems surprised that Jesus was a boundary crosser, a man who flaunted authority, who defied custom. We’ve homogenized him a great deal over the centuries, removing from him much of the prophet’s passion. We’ve made him much more palatable, more comfortable – more to our taste.

 

It is amazing how one perceives and experiences the events of the day when there is a particular passage or set of readings in one’s mind. That was my experience this week. But let me backtrack a bit. . . Years ago Mtr. Jane Patterson and I went to see To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything because the newspaper had misprinted the time of the movie we actually wanted to see. It was, of course, serendipity. We loved its campy fun, it’s poking fun at foibles, it’s “the bad guys get theirs” aspects. But far beyond that, we saw it throughout as laden with theological themes, a powerful story of redemption, a story of love and truth coming from those on the margins. And at its end I said to her, “Some day I’ll know I’m in the right church if I could lock the doors and say ‘we’re not leaving until we see this film and delve into its theological themes.’” Some of you are now members of this parish because that movie was what I cited when I was asked by the Wichita Eagle what book or movie I would recommend and I was too new to know that the stock answer is “the Bible.”

 

When Melanie Shurden and I saw Chocolat a few days ago I was astounded at how its themes matched today’s readings –  all of them, and how similar those themes are to To Wong Foo’s. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Let me quote the paper’s review:

 

Don’t be put off by what sounds like a foreign or artsy film. Instead, this is a sumptuous and magical treat (in English, although set in France) about a mysterious woman who arrives in a small, repressed village at the beginning of the Lenten season and opens a chocolate shop that tempts villagers to dare to dream. The village is run with a pious but iron hand by an aristocrat. But the lesson the newcomer reveals is that goodness should not be judged by what people deny themselves but by what they do for each other. The woman’s tasty treats have the ability to unlock what’s in people’s hearts, which allows some to find new love and others to free themselves from old pain and tragedy. . . .This is an exquisitely charming, gently amusing and heartwarming fairy tale that will leave you cheering.[3]

 

Yes. But. . . And. . .The Church is an equal character in the film. Sadly, the Church is in direct contrast to the lovely woman who has been publicly repudiated by the aristocrat and therefore from the pulpit by the priest whose sermons he regularly read and edited prior to Sunday’s delivery. I whispered to Melanie about a third of the way through, “The question will soon become, “Who is the real priest here?’” We enter Lent exactly a month from today, on the 28th of February, so we are close to a time when the Church in other days and in some places today is busy preaching repentance and denial. Lovely and true, but only in part. What good are repentance and denial if they don’t teach us better to love and serve?

 


What Juliette Binoche’s character does is, first, refuse to attend Mass. She has never married, and yet she has a daughter. She has never settled long in one place. Clearly, this is a bad woman! And yet it is she who loves unconditionally, it is she who brings healing, it is she who brings release to a woman captive, it is she who restores sight to the blind, joy to the joyless, love to the loveless, and it is she who gives quiet, persistent, devoted service. It is she, who lives as an outcast herself, who reaches out to others further down the hierarchical ladder of society’s norms. It is she who is the transformative agent.

 

And, as you might hope but dare not expect, it is the rigid, controlling, pious aristocrat, Le Comte himself, who is ultimately responsible for the most egregious sin and the greatest violence. It is he who needs to repent and seek forgiveness. It is he who is in need of sweetness instead of the fanatical abstinence that causes him to quiver at the sight of a simple baguette on a tray and go into ecstasy at the mere inhaling of the fragrance of a jar of preserves. Not to touch or taste, of course – the gazing and yearning were sin enough.

 

In one of the greatest moments in the film, the priest, delivering his Easter sermon, departs from all the garbage the Church has served on its liturgical and homiletical platter through the centuries and offers instead a message worthy of the Risen Christ himself – a message of acceptance, of redemption, of grace, and love. And tops it all off by participating in the chocolate-maker’s Easter Fertility Festival!

 

We waste such precious energy on fighting people, on hating people, on abusing people, because of our so-called differences. I mentioned some months ago that the genetic difference between a Caucasian in Wichita, KS and a man or woman in Africa is less than 1%. Research made possible by the Human Genome Project has now determined that we have the same number of genes as a plant and that only a few hundred genes separate us from a lowly mouse.[4] Surely science will help lead us to focusing on what we have – no, what we are – in common, rather than the few differences that exist between us. On that happy day no reviewer will call a movie like Chocolat a “fairy tale,” but will instead say, “The Gospel of the Lord” told in modern situations.

 

The prayer of The Rev. Joe Wright, he of the church at the corner, for the opening of the Kansas Senate some years ago is again making the rounds of the internet. I received it from two parishioners in the past two weeks. I get so angry and disgusted and embarrassed for the whole Church that I am never able to read it all the way through. You all undoubtedly know the prayer I mean, so I certainly won’t give it additional “air time” here today. But next time you hear it, or anything that resembles it, I urge you to think back to Jesus who, at the beginning of his ministry, made it clear that he was going to spend his time with the outcast, the “less than,” the outrageous, the despised. It was they to whom he would bring healing. And right from the start, it was for this reason that even his own sought to kill him.

 

If we would run off a maker of chocolate who dares to tempt our palates in Lent, if we would reject a person out of hand because she has no permanent home, or has a child without benefit of marriage, or because she advocates for a “crazy person,” then what, in the name of Heaven, would we do to a man from a no-count town in Galilee who rejects the pious and spends his whole ministry with people like her?

 

 

 



[1]. Ruth Simmons, heads  Brown University beginning July 1st.

[2]. Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, et al., Texts for Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox,

Press, 1994, p. 127-128.

[3]. Bob Curtright, “Movies,” Wichita Eagle, Friday, January 26, 2001, p. 3B.

[4].  TIME, January 15, 2001, p. 113.


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