4 Epiphany—Year C
January 31, 2016
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
Today we hear the second half of Jesus’s first sermon to his hometown synagogue. Last week it started so well, but now something goes terribly wrong and the congregation erupts in violence, as they threaten to throw Jesus off a cliff. And we are confused, because we all know that whoever and whatever else Jesus is, he is supposed to be nice at all times.
We were raised with this as our chief virtue for ethical living. Maybe we can’t always be smart or brave or giving or creative, but at all times and in all places we are called to be Nice. In fact for many people this is the summation of the gospel: God sent Jesus to tell us to be nice.
Sad to say that for many churchgoers the gospel is not about what God does for us in Jesus Christ, but about what we are supposed to do for each other, which is to be nice and polite, and if at all possible, to be cute as well.
This was certainly true in the South. But occasionally a Northerner would move in and shake things up.
When my daughter Katie was five, she took ballet lessons from a retired ballet instructor from New York City, called Miss Christina.
At the first class Miss Christina had the 12 little girls line up facing the big mirror, with the parents looking on. Miss Christina said, “Okay, girls look at yourselves in the mirror. You are all cute little girls. Every one of you is cute beyond belief. So my job is not to teach you how to be cute, my job is to teach you how to dance, which is a lot harder than being cute.”
This experience with Katie reminded me of being a kid in Atlanta when I played in an area band called the Northside Highlanders Elementary Band. We got to wear super cool uniforms with plaids and sashes and spats on our shoes. It was run by a severe woman named Mrs. Sisk who would come to my school once a month so I could play some of our music for her. I got one point for each measure I played correctly and she’d write this in a little notebook and add up my total points for the year and that determined which chair in the trumpet section I’d get to sit in. Being cute played no role in this calculation. What counted was playing the music I was given to play.
Jesus comes to his hometown to teach his friends and relatives to play God’s music. Turns out they had been playing this music in the wrong key and with the wrong rhythm. They thought god’s music was a good ole patriotic number, like John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”, but the one Jesus performs for them that day is more like Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
They had been performing a song about the glories of God’s exclusive love for Israel, and Jesus confronts them with the truth that God’s song is about God’s exclusive love for all nations.
He says, there were many widows in Israel but the great prophet Elijah is only sent to save a heathen widow living in modern day Lebanon and there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha but he is called by God to heal a Syrian, and the general of the Syrian army at that.
But the deeper problem is not that Jesus reminds them that God also loves foreigners—after all that is part of their Bible and they had a Court of the Gentiles on the Temple Mount—but what bothered them the most was that Jesus did not bring his Messianic Blessings to Nazareth. The Gospel of Mark’s shorter account of this story ends by saying, “Jesus could do no deed of power there…and he was amazed at their unbelief.” Mark 6:5-6
It’s as if he’d come here today to tell us about all the great things God is doing over at the Jehovah Witness Kingdom Hall and at the Mormon Temple, but unfortunately God isn’t going to bless us at All Saints with healings and miracles—because we have been playing the wrong song for too long that we don’t have the faith to receive it.
There are only two ways to take that kind of message: one is to fall on our knees and surrender to God for correction, begging Jesus to teach us God’s song.
The other is to get jealous, then angry, then violent. You could say this would be an account of domestic violence within a community.
Let’s face it, Jesus wasn’t nice. So was Jesus mean?
Not at all—for Jesus the opposite of nice isn’t mean, but loving—what is known in the 12 Step Movement as tough love.
I had a member in North Carolina named Robert—he was retired military and was in my office once a week complaining about my ministry and the lack of faith in the church. Robert had his charms but basically he was an angry, not-nice-person. He didn’t practice the social skills of the southern gentleman.
But Jesus put God’s music into Robert’s heart, so Robert went around our small town of 20,000 and found the homeless. He found a guy living under a bridge, another living in a series of cardboard boxes, and another living in a broken down van. When he was done Robert gathered up 20 homeless people, and then started looking for a place that would give them shelter at night. None of the mainline churches could find room, but the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church did and allowed Robert to turn their parish hall into a homeless shelter, and so the Jesus Song kept being played and kept being heard.
But the mainline churches also caught the melody and we started serving the men supper and providing members to be night staff, spending a night a week sleeping in the shelter.
Jesus is God’s love song to the whole world
We don’t earn that love—it is sheer gift. As has been said it is a tragic blunder to read the [gospel] as though redemption is contingent upon our act of deciding to dispose ourselves toward God in a particular way.., that is, to believe we must do something to earn that redemption. Richard Hays The Faith of Jesus Christ
We are saved and made whole through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, not through our own miserable and puny faith.
Yet it is also a tragic blunder to read the gospel as though God’s free gift means we are not called to make a response by living our lives in faithful obedience in Christ, participating in singing his love song to the whole world.
After Miss Christina told the girls that her job was not to make them cute but to teach them to dance, one mother got upset and immediately withdrew her cute little girl and took her to the competition across town, the Le Moulin Rouge De Danse where they teach little girls to be even cuter by shaking their hind parts. (I’ll be happy to tell you my nickname for this establishment at coffee hour when I’m not being recorded.)
Some churches focus on making themselves cute and nice, thinking this will attract new members. But what visitors to churches are really looking for is a community that can help them find their lives in singing God’s song.
Jesus is God’s love song to the whole world.
We know we have heard his song, when we start performing it, not just in church, but in the places where nice people don’t often go.