Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fourth after Epiphany, 2010

Luke 4: 21-30

So this morning we get what the late Paul Harvey used to call, “the rest of the story.”

Last week in the first part of the fourth chapter of St. Luke, we will remember, the famous home-town-boy-made-good Rabbi Jesus was escorted with much enthusiasm and interest and respect to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The whole town is buzzing. He processes with such great dignity into the center, receives the holy scroll, unrolls it with dramatic slowness, reads those great words from the Prophet Isaiah. The vision of God’s great promise to Israel, healing of the sick, freedom of prisoners, release of the oppressed. We see the congregation standing around him on tiptoes. Waiting. Poised, in anticipation. And he sits down, in the rabbinic chair. The traditional place of teaching. Looks up. And then we heard that strange comment. A one sentence opening. So unexpected. So disconcerting. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In that little synagogue, an intake of breath, a gasp almost. And then a pause. You could hear a pin drop. This morning: the rest of the story. He has their attention. They’re all ears.

And then, as elaboration, sermon illustrations, not a clever account: funny thing happened to me on the way to the synagogue; but two stories about times when God passed over his own chosen people to bless instead a Lebanese woman and a Syrian soldier. Two Bible stories from our home-town-boy-made-good, designed to challenge and affront, designed to push back at the core values and beliefs of the congregation itself. Who does he think he is? Still wet behind the ears. The kid who used to play ball in the streets with our kids. Now coming here, saying things like this?

When I was a seminarian at the Church of St. Anselm of Canterbury, in Lafayette, California, back in the early 1980’s, I was on the schedule to preach about once every six weeks or so. Then, in the week after, I would meet once with Bob Tsu, the rector, and once with my parish supervising committee, for an hour or so each of “sermon feedback.”

And of course what I can tell you is that though the sermons I preached were all quite a bit longer than the one Jesus preached that day. Longer, and for sure less powerful. But in any case, the good folks of St. Anselm’s were always much kinder to me than we see here in St. Luke this morning. Maybe I just never got around to pushing the right buttons. Which is not to say that I didn’t try. The perils of being a young preacher . . . .

But here this morning: this is “sermon feedback” with emphasis! No-holds-barred, bare-knuckles, Nazareth style. An immediate roar of disapproval. And then, as I know each youthful preacher in his or her audacious dreams imagines will likely happen to him or to her at some point: the whole congregation gathers together as one, rush the pulpit, drives him out of the building and down the street with the hurling of sticks and stones, wild shouts of anger, intent to throw him off a cliff.

Feedback, in any case, that is, let’s say, direct and succinct. To the point. Without ambiguity. Without even the genial chatter of coffee hour after to take the edge off. “Who do you think you are, Jesus? How dare you!” As perhaps one of his disciples might have said later: “Jesus, it appears that you touched a nerve.”

Now in a quarter century and more now since I preached my first sermon, I have from time to time had some sharp feedback. But nothing like this. Though you hear about it happening almost like this from time to time. Again, when the preacher hits the hot button, and there is a perfect storm. I know back during the days of the early civil rights movement there were some preachers who took a rock through the window as sermon feedback, or worse. There just has to be this “perfect storm,” I guess: the right word, and the right time.

The right word. The right time. We’ve been reading through the Letter to the Hebrews in the Daily Office Lectionary. This familiar passage struck me this week from Hebrews Chapter 4, as I thought about Jesus preaching in Nazareth: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

It was what he said. It was perhaps the way he said it. It was certainly above all, simply his presence, which was revealed to them in that moment in a flash of insight that seemed to turn upside-down everything they ever had known or believed. Today, in your hearing.

From the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the passage again that we heard proclaimed at the midnight service of Christmas Eve and that continues to stand over this season of Incarnation, Christmas and Epiphany. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Some things never change. There is this part of us that rebels. That turns away. That doesn’t want it to be true. That doesn’t want him to be true and real and alive, here and now. This part of us that prefers the shadow. This part of us that can’t stand the light of day. Not wanting to face the hard and challenging questions. What the evil spirits cried out to Jesus when he would perform his miracles of exorcism: “We know who you are, Jesus. Leave us alone. Leave us alone.” De-nial, as the saying goes, is not simply a river in Egypt. A broad river, a deep river that flows directly through our hearts and our lives. To choose to continue in the darkness rather than to accept the responsibilities and accountabilities that come when we turn on the lights.

It is an amazing thing to me that we manage to get here at all, this morning or any morning. To come out of the shadows and stand in his light. Even at the margin, with one eye on the exit. Nervously. In one way or the other this morning, by an act of will, an act of imagination, into the Presence. Before the one to whom all hearts are open, all desires known. From whom no secrets are hid. And he does push our buttons . He will hit our raw nerves. What the old saying was about the mission of the Church: to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable. And I suppose we should be at least a little uneasy, in his presence.

What the Samaritan Woman at the Well said to her neighbors as she ran to them: “Come hear a man who told me everything I ever did.” I don’t know about you, but most of the time I’d just as soon take a pass on that one. Perhaps what scared the Nazareth congregation. The look in his eyes, as he paused before beginning to read. They knew that he knew. That he saw through them, all the way in. That he knew them. And if that sermon was going to go on any longer . . . well, who knows what he might have said next?

In any event, Christmas and Epiphany, and it is without any doubt at all in my mind pure and simple the case that supernatural grace is what it has taken to get us here this morning, and to keep us here. Because we aren’t any better, or any different than the congregation gathered in the Nazareth synagogue. We’ve reacted in anger, we’ve run away before, and we will again. We’ve gone hiding, in fear, in anger. In distrust. But what it takes, today, here, now, to be here: supernatural grace. Not to run away from him. In fear. In anger. Not this time. Not this morning, anyway. Not to seek to throw him from the cliff. (What a perfect allegory for the psychological strategy of denial.) To get rid of him and to get back to business as usual. But to take the risk. To remain. To listen. This morning anyway. To put down whatever it is that we have been clinging to for dear life all these years, and to open our hands for the gift of all gifts: to reach out to take with open hands to receive the bread of life, the cup of heavenly blessing. His presence. To hear him say, whisper in our ears, “Today this has been fulfilled, completed, accomplished, in your hearing.”

Continuing in, returning to that First Chapter of John. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Bruce Robison

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