Sunday, January 31, 2010

He Passed Through the Midst of Them

     Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.      Luke 4:21-30
     This week after months of speculation, Apple unveiled its latest creation, the IPad. If you have not been following this news; if you are not a bit of a techno geek like I am, the IPad is 1 ½ pound, 9.7 inch, flat computer tablet with wireless internet. The buzz was good. There have been months of feverish speculation. In the New York Times, Steve Jobs, head of Apple spoke of the IPad with the kind of affection one usually reserves for one’s spouse. He is reported to have said, The IPad “is so much more intimate than a laptop, and it’s so much more capable than a Smartphone with its gorgeous screen.” Now, I do not know if it will do well or poorly. I am not much of a judge. I was the guy who told a friend in high school calculators would never catch on. More amazing than the product, was all the buzz that surrounded it long before people knew anything about it.

     Just like the IPad, the buzz was good about Jesus in today's Gospel. All were speaking well of him. Home town boy makes good! Naturally, he was invited to preach. From his brothers and sisters sitting up close to him, to proud aunts and uncles, to impressed co-workers, all the people of Nazareth first “spoke well of him” and were amazed at his “gracious words”

     So, Jesus preached from Isaiah:
     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.
     Jesus had a pretty short sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Nothing wrong with a short sermon (can I get an Amen?) Everyone was happy hearing what Jesus said! The Jubilee year, the "year of the Lord’s favor" was meant in Levitical Law to be enacted every 50th year. It is a year of celebration and rest. Debts are forgiven, lands are returned to family ownership, captives are released, and the poor are given a reprieve. Israel was a captive nation; captive to Rome – so this must have sounded pretty good at first. Jesus stopped short in the Isaiah reading. Isaiah goes on to talk about God getting revenge on those who had oppressed God's people. Jesus did not seem to want to preach about revenge... only freedom. He probably would have been more popular if he had just stopped right there. That would have been just the right place for the "Amen".

     But Jesus goes on to tell two stories calculated not to make any friends among a proud and nationalist people. He introduces them by saying, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ Jesus might as well have gotten up and said, "I know you've all heard of the great things I did at Capernaum; well I am not going to do any of them here." You could have heard a pin drop in the synagogue that Saturday!

     He then went on to speak of the poor widow in the city of Zarephath in the country of Sidon. While famine was over the whole land of Israel during the reign of the later kings, it had also struck neighboring gentile nations like Sidon. God sent the prophet Elijah there to a widow who was not an Israelite... she was a Gentile. She had only enough flour and enough oil to make
one small piece of bread. Elijah found her gathering sticks to make a fire to bake the bread and then tear it in half, so she and her son could at least eat something... and then sit and wait to die. Elijah gave her something; somehow, the man of God gave this poor woman hope. He told her to bake the bread, but to bring it to him and then bake some more for her and her son. And what began as a menu of starvation became a feast for Elijah, for that widow, and for her little boy. Miraculously, the little bit of oil and the little bit of flour never ran out for three years and six months

     Jesus went on to speak of Naaman the Leper, a General of the Syrian army whom God healed through Elisha, the prophet who came right after Elijah.

     There were many suffering widows in Israel during that long famine, but Jesus talks about the widow of Zarephath in Sidon who got fed – an alien... a woman... an outsider. There were lots of folks with leprosy in Israel, sick as dogs, covered with sores. They were good, pious people, God’s own people, but God’s mercy went instead to Naaman the Syrian. Jesus knew that his message was not limited to Israel alone, and that this would be unacceptable to his own people. Most people these days do well to remain awake during a sermon; but the folks in Nazareth that day became “enraged.” Are you getting a hint of why Jesus' hometown crowd all of a sudden turned on him and wanted to toss him off a cliff?

     Some commentators say that perhaps in the confusion of the crowd, he was able to slip through them and go on his way... maybe. From what I've seen of mob behavior, and because of the way the hairs on the back of my neck tend to rise when I read the words, "But he passed through the midst of them..." It sounds like a miracle to me.

     Just as in Jesus' day, in our own time people who do not fit the norms of a group, whether social or religious, are still excluded. Sometimes they are excluded because of the color of their skin. Sometimes they are excluded because of their poverty. Sometimes it is because they do not have a home. Sometimes they have different religious or political ideas. Sometimes they are excluded because their relationships – the people they love – are different from other people's. Jesus broke through all barriers Here we see the real reason Jesus was so radical. He really upset his own people who thought they had an exclusive contract with God. They had their own ideas of how God would act. You know what happens when expectations are not met; when you disappoint people. Jesus keeps making the circle bigger while many people are trying instead to circle the wagons.

     This preaching of Jesus is like telling U.S. denominational Christians God is as likely to bless a Muslim Imam as an Episcopal priest. God is equally likely to look with favor on a newborn in Haiti as he is to care for my children. These alarming illustrations of God’s universal love and providence are not acceptable to people whose religion has made God small enough to sit in their churches or synagogues. This is a Gospel that is alarming to those who are so smug and self-righteous they can blame tragedies like we are seeing in Haiti on the poor victims themselves. It is alarming to people who have made God small enough to package and peddle at a church supper or a political convention.

     Most human beings are content to settle for a God smaller than the one Jesus preached. Most prefer a God that is safe, portable... potty-trained. Like shopping for a comfortable lounge chair, first we measure the space available in our living room, or our lives, and then pick out something that fits between TV and stereo. In setting up our church's budget or planning our pledges or considering how we will each serve God, have we already decided that the God we are going to follow in the coming year is just going to have to be scaled down? But God doesn’t dance to our tune. No longer can any one segment of the faith community claim God to be exclusively theirs. God belongs to everyone. That is Jesus' message. God's arms embrace us all.

     Is our God too small? The folks at Nazareth were quite content with a Nazareth-sized God. Have we settled for a Reno-sized God? Maybe a Reno-Sparks God? OK, a Reno-Sparks, AND Sun Valley God. Maybe we are magnanimous enough to have a Nevada God or even... an American God. Still, that is too small a God for Jesus. Our little Nazareths of local limitations send God away.

     Jesus was right there among them with the Gospel, but because their God was too small, Jesus ended up simply walking away unnoticed. Jesus eluded them both physically and spiritually – they did not comprehend who he was, what he was doing, or why he was there. So, this morning, over two thousand years later, we ask ourselves the question, "Is our God too small?" Is our God a local, kind of tribal God, or are we really ready to worship a God who embraces all his children?

     In 1 Corinthians 13, amidst bickering about whose spiritual gifts are best, Paul reminds the church that love is our chief vocation. God's love empowers us to love one another. I am truly known by God, forgiven and loved, and therefore I can turn and love others.

     Are we ready to receive the Gospel of God's radical welcome and love or will Jesus elude us too? Will he abide with us, or will we allow him to just... pass through our midst and go on his way?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Songs of Praise Rise from Haiti

     Well, the heat is off gays, feminists, and Planned Parenthood. You may remember, Pat Robertson blamed gays and feminists for 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina on the work of Planned Parenthood. Pat has now sunk to an astonishing new low: Blaming the victims of natural disasters themselves. The following excerpt is from the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” broadcast of 1/13/10:

"And you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.

“They were under the heel of the French, uh, you know Napoleon the 3rd and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil.

“They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.'

“True story.

“And so the Devil said, 'Okay, it's a deal.’

“And, uh, they kicked the French out, you know, with Haitians revolted and got themselves free.

“But ever since they have been cursed by, by one thing after another, desperately poor..."

Source: ABC: Pat Robertson Blames Hatians
     The Gospels are very clear about Jesus’ thoughts on the subject of natural disasters and life’s misfortune – they were just that. He never blamed the victims. Here are some specific citations:

     As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. – John 9

     Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you…     – Luke 13
     There have been a number of responses to Pat Robinson's shockingly calloused and unscriptural remarks, but from The Washington Post, the voices of the Haitian people raised in songs of praise seem to be the best response.

At night, voices rise in the street. Sweet, joyful, musical voices in lyric Creole. A symphony of hope in a landscape of despair.

"It doesn't mean anything if Satan hates me, because God loves me," sing the women at Jeremy Square, their faces almost invisible in the darkness of this powerless, shattered downtown. "God has already paid my debt."

Port-au-Prince has become a kind of multidenominational, open-air church. Tens of thousands live in the street together, scraping for food and water, sharing their misery and blending their spirituality.

The women singing together in Jeremy Square might never have worshiped side by side before the disaster, but now their voices harmonize and soar well past 2 in the morning.
     The hand of God was not in the earthquake; the hand of God is behind those who sing and pray together, who come from other countries to offer aid, and in you and me when we open our hearts to pray and send support.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

You Are the Beloved

     Last night, I was the presider at our Saturday service. We talked about how Jesus showed us the place to start in our own ministries: in baptism. He rose dripping from the waters of the Jordan, and Mark states the heavens were "torn apart". The Spirit descended as a dove, and God himself from heaven spoke of His love for the Son.

     Some folks struggle through their whole lives without ever hearing a word of love; all they know is anger and rejection. Hearing someone say I love you – you are beloved – would be a life-changing experience. Like Jesus, when we reflect on our own baptism, we hear again those precious words said not just to Jesus, but to you and to me, "You are my child… the beloved. I am so pleased with you." As beloved, we can walk out into the world with a different attitude.

     Then, the congregation was sprinkled with water from the font with these words: “May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom.” I did not plan this, but at the end, I just handed the water and the small pine branch we were using to an older woman in our congregation and asked her to sprinkle me. I said, “I need to remember my baptism too.” She was hesitant, and gave a first mild attempt without getting any water on me. I told her to try it again – she totally nailed me, and we all laughed.

     After everyone was gone, I went out to my car to drive home, and there was a light rain falling. As the drops hit my face it seemed that now it was God’s turn to baptize me and remind me who I am.

Monday, January 4, 2010

One Englishman's View of Americans

     Ever wonder what folks "across the pond" think of their cousins in the colonies? A humorous and insightful commentary by Geoff Dyer appeared recently in the New York Times:

     The first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns. Then, when I came across people who’d had direct contact with this ferocious-sounding tribe, I learned that they were actually rather friendly. At university, friends who had traveled in the United States came back with more detailed stories, not just of the friendliness of Americans but also of their hospitality (which, in our quaint English way, was translated into something close to gullibility)...
     Enjoy the entire article here: "My American Friends" by Geoff Dyer.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Steal Our Poinsettias, Please!

     My church has been decked out in its Christmas finest for ten days now (Lords a’leaping, for those of you keeping track.) Inevitably, we must face the bitter truth that our overworked altar guild cannot continue to care for so many needy poinsettias, and although Epiphany is still three days away, enough is enough. So today, we asked people to steal them after the last morning worship service. OK, we were not quite that bald faced about it. I believe we couched the invitation in more correct Episcopalianese: something about the poinsettias “needing a good home” and “moving out into the community in the Spirit of the season.” One could almost hear the strains of “Born Free” playing in the background during the announcement.

     Now, there is always a titter of excitement that runs through the congregation when our annual sanctioned theft of the poinsettias is announced. We are Episcopalians, so we certainly can not rush up the moment after the dismissal of “Thanks be to God!” We take it slowly. Some parishioners kind of walk stealthily around the poinsettias as though choosing just the right one. Many will have already scoped out their favorite during the announcements and go through an elaborate dance of socializing while moving steadily toward their target, keeping a sharp eye out for interlopers who would carry off their leafy prize. Some of the plants will go to private homes; some to hospitals. Every Christmas we somehow manage to farm out our Yuletide shrubbery within a couple weeks, and the altar guild breathes a collective sigh of relief.