Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Meeting a Scrappy Jesus

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

We meet a scrappy Jesus in Luke’s ongoing story of the Master’s inaugural visit to his hometown congregation. A scrappy Jesus doesn’t square with a typical stained-glass impression of a beatific messiah, does it? But we’re not making it up: here it is, this morning, a pugnacious Savior steps out from Luke’s Gospel, unafraid to stir up a hornet’s nest with a series of verbal jabs worthy of Questions to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. And, as in that antagonistic setting, restoring order after Jesus had spoken was easier said than done.

The Nazareth crowd wants Jesus to show them his stuff. They’ve heard that he did wonders at Capernaum, and they think charity ought to begin at home.

Jesus, however, has a transferable outlook regarding home-- and family, for that matter. Perhaps it came from being born in a feeding trough in someone else’s hometown, but once Jesus begins this public ministry, this itinerant preaching, this missionary journey from village to village, the only home he knows is the safe house belonging to Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, where he occasionally crashes. And as for family? “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” he announces, promoting his disciples to real kinship, and giving notice to his biological family that their claim on him is not what it once was.

And to his Nazareth townsfolk he lays it out that they as Israelites cannot presume to have a special claim upon the lovingkindness of God. Driving home that point, he reminds them of two storie that for patriotic Israelites may have been among the least popular and most irritating in all the Hebrew Bible. One is the prophet Elijah’s mission to go and help a widow in the Phoenician town of Zarephath, an assignment pitting Elijah against death as he must call the widow’s only son back from the brink of death-- a story important enough that it is remembered in one of our windows in the back, the lower set, the one closest to the font, remembered, I expect, for its message that God’s love enfolds all people, all nations, all religions… and if we’re honest about it, that’s still a hotbutton issue around this fractured globe of ours.

Jesus’s second allusion is to another Hebrew prophet, Elisha, who played a role in the healing of a Syrian general named Naaman, the scourge of Israel in his day.

Do you hear what Jesus is doing? He’s baiting an already xenophobic audience, flashing the toreador’s cape in the face of a very bullish crowd of homeland supremacists who had no doubt that they were God’s favorites. As much as Jesus might understand how this bunch of unprosperous scratch farmers and fishermen needed to bolster their egos in order to face their hardscrabble lives, he simply would not condone what their belief said about God, who is not exclusivist, not narrow-minded, and not the property of one nation or one religion. It’s this championing of who God is that Jesus gets scrappy about. He challenges their belief so they may know the truth that will make them free.

So this episode stands alongside the day he overturned the tables of money-changers in the temple, driving them out with a whip of cords. And this story stands alongside those times when, exasperated by his unimaginative, self-absorbed, and sometimes vindictive disciples, he would rebuke them—not a gentle word, rebuke.

As we meet him today, Jesus has some sharp edges and knows how to use them. His story has another edginess about it: a dramatic, ominous, threatening cliff is at the far edge of this story.

Do you suppose that there might be a message here for any of us who feel like we’re right on the edge… on the edge of being overwhelmed by opposition, or by fear, or by narrow-minded, unimaginative, self-absorbed, and sometimes vindictive people in our lives?

What Jesus does when he’s right on this edge is to require that the people around him pay attention to the biggest picture about God: God’s universal compassion and lovingkindness, the resulting truth of the radical equality of all people in God’s sight, and the unity of all people that will be found in that truth. In short, on the edge of petty demands, narrow thinking, and hard feelings, Jesus opens minds to what he calls the kingdom of God, the big picture, the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven.

St. Paul follows this pattern when he gets right to the edge with those messy Christians in Corinth. They’re a fractious bunch, good-hearted but strong willed and given to divisiveness. No prophet may be accepted in the prophet’s hometown, but it was equally true that no itinerant apostle trying to confront a local church from a distance would be acceptable, either. Paul has to do what Jesus did, draw with clear bright lines the biggest picture of what God is doing in this world; and so we get this sublime soliloquy, this hymn to the love of God which has come to us all in Jesus Christ. Listen to the gist of the lyrics of this love song.

More valuable than impressive speaking, more lasting than prophecy, more constructive than knowledge, more powerful than faith, and more important than material generosity is the having and giving of love. All the skills and talents that people may boast about having are incomplete and are small matters by comparison to the central and comprehensive reign and rule of love which God has released into the world by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All else than love is child’s play, smoke and mirrors. The real thing, the big picture, what frees life and fulfills it: receive this, have this, give this.

Both of these readings come to us today from the edge. Both show how a scrappy spirit may take hold of life at that edge and redirect attention to what matters most, saving life from going over the edge into waste and futility, raising life to fulfillment.