Sunday, February 3, 2013

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: Sexagesima

 Luke 4: 21-30

Good morning and grace and peace.  Already February, and I suppose I might say the 41st Day of Christmas, just to keep the count going, though yesterday, February 2, Candlemas, Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin and the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, is usually the day when we stop counting.  Susy and I watched “Groundhog Day” last night in our traditional Pennsylvania commemoration of the holiday . . . . 

We turn at Candlemas to the Pre-Lenten  season, sometimes called the “Gesimas” because of the old Greek titles of the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday, indicating at least symbolically 70,60, and 50 days before Easter –Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima.  Pre-Lent running a little tighter timeframe this year, with an early Easter to come on March 31, last Sunday technically Septuagestima, though you don’t usually mark those Sundays if they fall before Candlemas, and so already today Sexagesima.  Corner turned on the long highway from the Manger to the Cross.  From the sunshine of Christmas morning, now moving into the day, and with High Noon not too far ahead, and already on the horizon. 

In Luke’s gospel as Jean has just read it for us, the continuation of last Sunday’s reading, and here in a sense at the very beginning of the earthly ministry and witness of Jesus, returning to his hometown after gathering his disciples in the villages of the Galilee, his first sermon in his hometown synagogue.  We heard the opening line of that sermon last Sunday, following the reading from Isaiah in which the Prophet looks with joy to the wonderful healing and fulfillment that will come when God’s power is finally revealed to the nations of the world.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The new day dawns.  Yet from the very beginning things don’t seem to go quite right.

Back in 2009 an Episcopal priest, Dennis Maynard, wrote what has become a very well-known book about conflict, in the field of congregational studies.  A careful study of churches that have been torn apart by conflict between members of the congregation and clergy leadership.   I love the title, “When Sheep Attack.”  A terrifying image (!)

We see something of that here—no, not here, but here in St. Luke-- as the congregation in Nazareth that just a few verses before is so excited to welcome this hometown celebrity, a congregation almost bursting at the seams with pride, is suddenly provoked into a reaction that is so dramatic and violent.  I think something more than even the most harrowing example that Maynard gives in his book.  Jesus literally driven out of the synagogue and to the very edge of a nearby cliff.   Giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “sermon feedback,” they are in what can only be described as a murderous rage.  They’re about to do their worst, all of us holding our breath as we watch the scene unfold.  But then Jesus is somehow almost miraculously able to turn and to walk through the crowd and to make his departure.

Jesus knows what is in their hearts, and as he continues to speak to them with these references to Old Testament stories about God showing favor to outsiders and foreigners the people of Nazareth are reminded of their own sin, their own unfaithfulness, and their own sense of pride and profound denial of the reality of their lives is exposed in stark relief.  And as is our familiar pattern of response, the first thing to do is to kill the messenger.  Who does he think he is, anyway?

Even from the very beginning, this morning.  The 41st Day of Christmas.  And what starts as sunshine and full of hope gives way to shadow, conflict, tension.  The songs of the Angels to the shepherds on the hillsides have only just come to an end, and there are darker sounds, thunder in the distance, and a foreshadowing of the conflict that will bring us from this place directly to the Cross.

One of my favorite movies a few years ago was Superman Returns.  Maybe you remember.  Superman has been away from earth for a number of years, and when he finally comes back to Metropolis he finds that things have changed since his departure.  There’s even some sense among the city’s leaders that maybe the superhero was more trouble than he was worth.  Superman tries to warn people about some brewing danger, but they are in deep denial.  Perhaps just like the congregation of the Nazareth synagogue.  Or like any of us.  And there is a great scene in which Superman is rebuked and rejected with these words from Lois Lane, who tells him, basically, to get lost.  “The world doesn't need a savior,” she says, “and neither do I.”  Again, deep denial. 

But then the story unfolds.  Darkness returns.  Crime and murderous mayhem.  And it turns out, of course, in the end, that a savior is exactly what she and the world do need. 

There is an old saying among preachers, as we see in the first reading from Jeremiah about his call to a prophetic ministry and then most especially as we see it played out with Jesus here in the synagogue.  About the impact of the gospel: “To comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”

And of course Jesus not simply the preacher here, but also the text itself, God’s sermon, God’s perfect self-expression,  present in our midst.  The Word made flesh.  And as he comes into our presence, there is light in the darkness.  What was hidden, now in plain sight.  No covering things up.  The secrets of our minds and hearts.

St. Benedict says to his flock back in the beginning of the sixth century, in his long section on Christian and monastic humility, “let a man consider that God is always looking at him from heaven, that his actions are everywhere visible to the divine eyes and are constantly being reported to God by the Angels.”

So this is a hard business here, a struggle, and the story of our life: we just don’t really want give it up without a fight.  But then, there is this:  Jesus is going to fight hard for us.  Conflict and persecution.  All the way to Jerusalem, all the way to that Cross, and as the soldiers pound in the nails.  He’s going to fight for us all the way, until the strife is over, the labor done, the victory won.

If it were going to be easy, we wouldn't need to do the hard work we do here.  As my Aunt Bert used to say, I think quoting Jack Benny, actually--as she sailed on into her late 90’s, and with a whole series of health problems: “getting old isn't for sissies.”  Heavy lifting.  To turn.  Laying our dark places out before him again.  

We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.  We have followed too often the devices and desires of our own hearts.  We have offended against thy holy laws.  Miserable offenders.  No health in us.  

Laying it all out for him, emptying ourselves and praying for his mercy, his kindness.  If it were going to be easy we wouldn’t need to follow him up to that cross ourselves, which is what we do in our minds and hearts as we approach this holy table.  If it were going to be easy we would be fine with food and drink that didn't come to us at such a great price.  The most expensive meal we will ever eat.

The 41st day of Christmas now, and there is thunder in the distance.

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