Epiphany 4 C 2019

Epiphany 4 C 2019

Texts: Jeremiah 1: 4-10

          Psalm 71: 1-6

          1 Corinthians 13:1-13

          Luke 4: 21-30

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.  Amen.

“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

Don’t you just hate people who think they’re God?  They seem so sure of themselves. They think they are always right and everyone else is always wrong.  That may be how they see themselves, but it is rarely how others see them.

I was reminded of this as I was reading the latest theological commentary to come along.  It is very interesting and quite different from the other commentaries I use in preparing my sermons, because it lets me comment on what I have been reading.  It is an interactive commentary series. Perhaps you’ve heard of it; it is called Facebook.

Someone had posted a cartoon on Facebook a few weeks ago.  Like a lot of religious cartoons, it was amusing and held just enough truth in it that I could see what was being portrayed as something that very well could happen.  It held enough truth that I could nod my head and say, “Yup.”

The cartoon showed three women on donkeys.  It was apparent from the background of the cartoon that the scene took place in biblical times.  The reader is looking at the backs of the women and donkeys. Each donkey had a bumper sticker on its right back flank.

The first bumper sticker said on it, “My son is a doctor.”  The second bumper sticker read, “My son is a lawyer.” The third bumper sticker read, “My son is God.”  One woman is saying to the others, “Well, well, well. If it isn’t Mary of Nazareth.”

Many years ago, David and I were visiting our friends Bill and Bev in Chicago.  This was before Bill and I were ordained priests. Sunday morning we all went to church.  Walking up the stairs to the church in front of us were a little boy and his father. The boy couldn’t have been more than four years old.

As David and I were walking up the stairs to go into the church we hear the little boy say to his father, “Daddy, I just saw Jesus!”  The father laughs and says, “You did? Where is he?” The little boy turns around, points to David and says, “There he is daddy! There’s Jesus!”  I’ve lovingly accused David of having a God-complex ever since.

I think something similar happened with Jesus when he was preaching in his home synagogue.  Last week’s reading has Jesus returning home to Nazareth and on the Sabbath going to the synagogue to read scripture and, as was the custom, comment on it.

He had gotten a reputation in the surrounding countryside as a good preacher.  We are told that he, “was praised by everyone” who heard him. He is handed a scroll from Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He rolls the scroll up, hands it back to the attendant, sits down and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  This is where we pick up the story today. Verse 21, last week’s ending verse, is repeated and is the first verse in this morning’s reading, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus is in front of the home crowd.  These were the people he knew and who had watched him grow up.  They heard the wonderful things said about him and his preaching and we are told that, “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

If they were amazed and Jesus was gracious, how could all of this go so wrong in an instant?  How could this get to the point where they wanted to kill him? Talk about a crowd turning on the speaker.  If there ever was a moment that proved the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt,” this was it.

But why did the crowd turn on him?   They turned because Jesus stood before them and told them the truth; and it was a truth that was either too painful to listen to, or their notion of truth just didn’t square with Jesus’ notion of truth.  They had a very different notion of who God was supposed to be and what God was supposed to do.

Jesus told them that in the time of the prophets, in the time of Elijah and Elisha, in a time of famine and war, God helped those outside of Israel.  God’s favor shone on others the Israelites considered unclean and out of the reach of God’s grace.

The congregation in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew Jesus.  But they knew him with a “superficial over-familiarity.”  They knew him to be one of them, believing the same way they did, a hometown boy made good, until he spoke the truth to them.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of being part of a women’s retreat several years ago.  The question that was under discussion was, “Who is or has been Christ to you?”

Many answered that it was the person who stood by them when there was a serious family illness, or someone who didn’t leave them when they had a personal crisis.  Perhaps it was the person or persons that just listened when they really needed an ear to hear them out or a shoulder to cry on.

But there was this one woman at the retreat that said, “The person that has been Christ to me is my friend who told me the truth so clearly, I wanted to kill her for it.”  

Telling the truth, the painful truth, was an act of love and a type of solidarity for this woman.  The person who incarnated Christ for her didn’t fall into the trap of “superficial over-familiarity” that gave her pious platitudes about what she wanted to hear.  

The person who incarnated Christ, took the risk to tell her the truth so that she could better understand the present in order to write a different future.

It is hard to hear the truth.  It is even harder to hear the truth from someone who knows us.  If we hear the truth from someone we only superficially know, it is easier for us to disregard what they are saying and to think they just don’t know what they are talking about.  If we hear the truth from someone we superficially know, it is easier to chalk the truth up to sour grapes, jealousy, or ignorance.

But if we hear the truth from someone we know, we can either acknowledge the truth in their statements, get angry at being shown something we don’t want to see, or we take that person who we thought knew us and put them into a different category-the category of nice but mistaken.  

Jesus did nothing for those in his hometown, “but remind them that God’s sense of community was bigger than theirs was.” Taylor writes, “The problem isn’t that we are loved any less.  The problem is that we cannot stand that others are loved just as much as we are, by a God with an upsetting sense of community.”

Jesus is reminding us that God’s truth and God’s promises and God’s blessings will contain things and people we may not want, but that we desperately need.  Those who love us enough to tell us the truth are trying to tell us that God’s truth is larger than any truth we can hold to or any truth we can live out in our daily lives.  

We are told in today’s reading that the congregation was so angry with Jesus that they took him out of the city and were prepared to throw him off the cliff, “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

The congregation in the synagogue could not accept that it is God who defines community and not themselves.  Can we? Can we accept that God’s sense of community and truth is so much larger than we can conceive of or may even want?

Jesus loves us enough to tell us the truth, the hard truth, the truth we need to hear.  Are we loving enough, are we humble enough, are we willing enough to hear it?

Jesus always speaks the truth to us in love.  But what of others who speak the truth to us? What about when we speak the truth to others?  Do we do so in love?

Many times we can’t hear the truth because the truth is cloaked in anger.  And so we react to the intensity of the emotion expressed instead of responding to the nugget of truth that needs to be engaged.  

St. Paul reminds us in today’s reading from First Corinthians that if we speak the truth, but don’t do so in love, it is as if all we were saying was the clanging of a bell or a clanging cymbal.  It is simply noise. The truth can’t be heard over the cacophony.

We can have all this knowledge, we can see how things are going to play out, we can be so sure of an outcome, but if we don’t express that knowledge with love, if we don’t express our certainty with humility, if we don’t engage one another first and foremost in love, all of that knowledge and all of that certainty simply doesn’t mean anything.

Speaking the truth in love is what Jesus was all about. Speaking the truth in love, St. Paul writes, is the “more excellent way” to live together in community.  

When we do so, like the friend of the woman at the retreat, we incarnate Christ to one another.  When we do so, we become part of the abiding love that will transform the world.


Robin Whittington