Friday, February 2

Sermon: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

4 Epiphany, Year C
January 28, 2007
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a,
Gospel: Luke 4:21-32 “Prophet in Hometown”
The Reverend Laura Gottardi-Littell


Have you ever been the bearer of bad news? Even if it’s actually good news disguised as bad? Ever had to tell someone, or a group of people, a truth they didn’t want to hear, but you felt they needed to hear? Or have you been the one who didn’t like the message? Likely we’ve all been on one side or the other of the truth-telling fence, and it’s never easy.

Speaking prophetically is something we’re all called to do, whether we’re pastors or church members. We may feel like Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament reading. Jeremiah laments “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a child.” But God reminds Jeremiah, that he is not a child. Jeremiah is to speak what God commands him too, and God will be there to deliver him.

Today’s gospel vignette shows us people on both sides of the truth-telling fence
The one saying something difficult, the prophet -- in this case, Jesus.
The ones in the congregation who hear something difficult – in this case the hometown crowd listening to Jesus in the synagogue.

At first the crowds love what Jesus has to say, and marvel at how well their home boy can speak: “Hey, isn’t that Joseph’s son? Shoot, I knew him when he was knee-high to a grasshopper. How he’s grown!” They’re thrilled …until he starts to say that he has come not just for them, but also for people outside Nazareth and Israel. And then their prejudices, and insularity, their need and greed start to kick up, and they are enraged. You mean we’re not going to reap all the benefits of having a hometown prophet to ourselves? He was sent to heal only us, right? Well, from what he just said, apparently not. So, very ticked off, they try to shoot the messenger, or in this case, drive him off a cliff.

It takes courage to speak the truth, or hear it spoken. The truth will set you free… someone wise said. And then as someone equally wise added … if it doesn’t kill you first. Speaking and hearing the truth sometimes feels like it will damn
near kill us. Look what happens to Jesus in today’s gospel.

But as still another wise person said, the truth is always kind. And I believe that. That after we get over the pain of having our illusions shattered – about self, another, the world, whatever –we are in a stronger position to deal with reality. And many times our illusions are damaging us anyway. So we need to have the blinders removed. Sure, the sunlight can hurt our eyes when we first come out of a dark room. But then…we’re in the light! no longer languishing in lies or distortions that were harmful. The warm illuminating rays of the sun wash over us, and…we’re gradually enlightened.

What Jesus said to his hometown was actually good news, kind news: Jesus had come for all, not some. God valued all people, not just Nazarenes and Israelites. God’s love and grace were enormous enough to override human divisions.

Today’s gospel from Luke begs a couple of important questions: 1) How can we be authentic, speak the truth and still remain in relationship? It’s an essential question for individuals, groups, churches. And 2) What do we do with the radical inclusivity Jesus calls us to in this passage? How do we reach beyond limits we set, or are set for us by society, and include others in the embrace of the gospel?

I think these two questions, 1) how can we be authentic and still remain in relationship, and 2) how to be inclusive of “outsiders” are related.

Both involve seeing both our own potential and the potential of the other and speaking to it. The more we are self-defined and self-loving the more authentic and inclusive we are. The more we know and embrace our own selves, the more available we are to others.

When we face the truth about ourselves (and the truth is kind: we are God’s beloved, acceptable just as we are, although we may need to change some of our ways) we can emerge from the darkness that separates us from the rest of God’s people. We are in a better position to experience on a deep level that everyone, whatever their tribe or belief, skin color or shape, is worthy of respect.

What Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel is radical inclusivity. Beyond mere tokenism or political correctness, he calls us to see and act out the reality that God cares for all. He tells us the hard truth that the poor and oppressed people of all nations, women or man, black or white are God’s beloved. And ought to be equal in our sight. You may say, yes, yes, we know and affirm this. Or you might say, yes, yes, Laura, we’ve had political correctness seminars at work/church. Ok, fine. But the world does not act on this radical inclusivity, as you know, and the term political correctness is often our cynical way of distancing ourselves from, and mildly mocking, these hard and painful truths of equality. How do I know they’re hard and painful truths? Because truth tellers on this subject have paid a heavy price. Jesus. Mohatma Ghandi. Martin Luther King. Oscar Romero. Women who starved themselves in jails so womankind could have the vote. Other women who stepped “out of line” in courageous ways so their sisters could live in dignity, opportunity, and freedom from violence. Gays and lesbians have risked censure and scorn, been victims of hate crimes because they stood up for their equality or just dared to be themselves. People have suffered and died for the hard truth of inclusion and equality. Not to mention the myriad wars fought between tribes and nations. Why’s it all so risky, this message that God came for all?

People in dominant groups – which all of us belong to in one way or another – are often loathe to look at and own up to our exclusiveness. And while we might not like the divisions in our world, nationalism, racism, sexism, or classism, to name just a few, we may feel quite attached to the privileges and distinctions they give us.

It can be very hard to break down our denial that we do have certain privileges, then contemplate giving them up or sharing them. But it’s a better world, when all are free to live up to our potential, when all are recognized as God’s people. Xenophobia – fear and dislike of the stranger or “other” – hurts everyone, including the prejudiced one. Our ‘isms’ – racism, sexism, classism, etc. – destroy all of us. I firmly believe this.

Messages of inclusivity and equality can seem like bad news, invoking suspicion, fear, anger, and denial. We can find many ways – some quite subtle -- to push them away. But these messages are in fact the good news, the gospel, whether we like it or not.

We may wonder, as did Jesus’s townspeople: “Why be part of God’s kingdom if it’s not going to directly benefit me, my tribe, my group? “ And truth be told, there are sacrifices involved in giving up our false sense of separation, the fences that divide.

At Reconciler, we demonstrate inclusivity in a vital and uncommon way by being an ecumenical church, drawing on the traditions of several distinct denominations. This is a wonderful and unique experiment that can’t be underestimated in its rarity and importance. It has its challenging and risky aspects. Could we be more inclusive, more diverse? Yes, probably we could. And perhaps we will grow to be. I trust we will do so in ways that seeks to avoid mere tokenism and political correctness. Openness to the other, whoever the other is, needs to come from a deep place of respect and reality testing. And being willing at times to sacrifice one’s own pride of place and comfort zone for the task of building up the kingdom. Our friend William spoke to us about “el plenitud del reino” – the plenitude of the kingdom – and Jesus speaks to us in today’s gospel about that that astonishing abundance for all. It’s still scandalous, the grace of God that extends to us, if we only dare to accept and live into it.

I love the ending of today’s gospel passage. Luke says: “But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” When the people in Jesus’ town try to run him off a cliff, his ultimate rejection is foreshadowed. Jesus will be rejected not only by his townspeople, but by many of his compatriots, the Israelites. He will end his life a prophet without honor in either hometown or country. Today’s gospel passage foreshadows his crucifixion. But it also foreshadows the resurrection. Luke’s gospel concludes: “He went on his way” or in another translation from the Greek “He was going on.” Jesus gave the hard message of God’s inclusivity to his townspeople and then went on to his next task. Ultimately Jesus dies for this and the other hard messages he delivers, but…even after death, he is going on. God’s love for all of us just couldn’t die. And my friends, as the Body of Christ, we are going on too. Each of us are vital members of the body, as Paul stresses in our reading from Corinthians. Valuing and respecting each part, sharing with others the hard but good news of radical inclusion, we are to go on building up the Kingdom in all its plenitude. Amen.