Sermon on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:21-30 for the 4th Epiphany, year C, January 31, 2016
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 hometown 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 hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up 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.
I am often amazed to observe a pattern of behavior that just seems like it should be impossible, except that it keeps happening all the time. It is that people lose the forest for the trees. People lose sight of the main thing, in favor of tiny minor side issues. For example, kids will gather together to have fun; they will decide to play a game, but then spend so much time arguing about the rules or who cheated, or what is not fair, that instead of having fun, everyone ends up having a bad time.
Similarly, it amazes me that our country, a nation of immigrants has such a regular habit of ostracizing immigrants. We Northern and Western Europeans who happened to get here first (after the native population), ostracized others, in the Southern and Eastern Europeans when they first arrived in successive waves.
It also amazes me that our country, which attracted so many of our ancestors from Europe specifically for religious freedom, especially freedom from governmental meddling in religion, is proclaimed to be a one-religion country by politicians and the media.
It happens so often, and so loudly these days, that it almost feels as though our founding father’s view of the value religious pluralism was downright unpatriotic. Imagine, Jefferson being considered anti-American! But that is the absurdity that often happens when the big-picture is lost.
It happens in so many ways: Christianity is supposed to be about one big idea; Love. God is essentially love, we say. Love that involves forgiveness. Love that motivates grace. Love that is limitless and extravagant. Love that even embraces self-sacrifice.
But we could spend all day sharing stories of examples of Christian individuals and groups that seemed to have totally lost track of love, both personally, and in their relationships with others.
But even though the big ideas get lost and forgotten so often, it is good to keep reminding ourselves of them. We must be prepared, however, to face push-back. When we bring up for discussion the big idea that has been turned upside down, the ones who like it upside down do not go away quietly.
The Honor-less Home Boy
That is what is happening in this text from Luke. It is not just from Luke. This is one of those stories that makes it into all four gospels: Jesus was rejected in his hometown.
“No prophet,” he says, referring to himself, “is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
In Nazareth, Jesus is merely “Joseph’s son” – a landless peasant, most likely, a day-laborer-type; the kind you see hanging around the construction site, looking for work, early in the morning. Not exactly the kind of material that produces a person capable of profound religious insight. He probably did not even have a formal education.
He was bright, however, and did impress people with his acumen. He certainly knew his Hebrew bible. He could pull out stories effortlessly. He dropped in two in a row without a blink here. One was about the great prophet Elijah, on the run from the wicked queen that wanted him dead, escaping across the border to shelter with a Gentile widow. There, he saves her from starvation during a famine by a miraculous supply of grain and oil.
The other story was about Elijah’s successor Elisha who cured a Syrian man of his “leprosy.” The one thing these two stories have in common is that in each one, an Israelite prophet is a conduit for God’s grace, extending to a non-Israelite foreigner.
Reminding the folks in Nazareth that God’s love extends beyond their national boundaries and includes people who are ethnically and religiously different, makes no one happy. In fact, they get so mad, at least the way Luke tells it, they want to kill Jesus. Luke is super-vague about how Jesus got away from the murderous mob, but anyway, the plot failed that time. Maybe it is a prequel to what is going to happen later, more successfully, for Jesus’ opposition.
Anyway, this story got me thinking about the notion of resistance itself. Why do people resist hearing or accepting something – even something fundamental? Why do some Americans resist the thought of welcoming immigrants so strongly, when we are a nation of immigrants? Why do Christians lose sight of love, when it is the foundation of all that we believe about God and virtue?
Why did the people of Nazareth, with their Hebrew bibles full of reasons for knowing that God’s grace extends beyond their own people, have such a hard time hearing it from their home-town boy? The bible is full of it: from the Creation story that gives us all a common source, to the story of Ruth the Moabitess, or the story Jonah’s call to go to Assyrian Nineveh.
How could the people, whose liturgy reminded them every year to say,
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, … The Lord brought us out of Egypt … and he brought us into this place”
not have a place in their hearts for other aliens? Talk about loosing sight of the big picture!
Resistance as Thematic
But all of this made me reflect on the big picture in this story. Jesus was rejected. Jesus’ message was resisted. That is the largest fact about this story.
Which made me ask the more personal question: where is there resistance in me, to what I understand of Jesus’ message?
I remember being struck by a comment someone made – maybe Jen Hammond – at the start of her on-line FB reading group for the book, The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. She said we should notice when we feel a resistance to the ethical practices being described in the book. Where is the resistance coming from?
The idea is that after becoming mindfully aware that there is, in me, resistance, how do I feel about the resistance? Is it coming from a good place? Or do I feel a pull to grow into the kind of person who is not resisting that particular ethical calling?
One of the most important, large-picture, main-thing ideas we all affirm is that our quest is to be followers of Jesus. So, we already have at least a mental commitment to agreeing with Jesus’ message and perspective. So, we have reasons to ask ourselves, where, in me, is there resistance?
- Is it in Jesus’ teaching about outsiders, as in this story, specifically?
- Is it in Jesus’ teachings about poverty and wealth,
- the dangers of loving money,
- his perspective on accumulation of assets,
- or about apathy towards the suffering of the poor?
There are all kinds of topics in Jesus’ teachings, and many of his lifestyle practices, that can produce resistance in us, when we consider following him:
- like his insistence on forgiveness of enemies;
- his rejection of violence;
- his radically open commensality (open table fellowship);
- his egalitarian rejection of social hierarchies;
- his concept of a newly constituted definition of family;
- his demolition of the doctrine of divine retribution;
- and even his commitment to the risk of radical trust;
not to mention his example of non-resistance, even to the point of self-sacrifice;
there are plenty of areas of Jesus’ teaching and example to feel resistant about.
The Sources of our Resistance
So, we ask ourselves, where is that resistance coming from? Is it coming from a good place, or after noticing that I feel resistance, should I give it some thoughtful reflection? Even some prayerful reflection?
For me, the resistance usually comes from sources like fear. I fear looking ridiculous, I fear being weak, I fear not fitting into what everyone else thinks. I fear the danger of risk; I fear the pain, or even the inconvenience of self-denial, I fear change.
Resistance also comes from what spiritual teachers like Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr call the “small self,” or the “false self.” This is the self that we all need, initially, to build up a sense of who we are as people in the “first half of life.”
In order to be a well-adjusted, competent, self-confident person, we all construct a sense of self. It is like a container that we build for our inner-person. It includes an understanding of our place in our family. It includes the roles we have – spouse, parent, employee, citizen.
It includes the groups we identify with; our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our state, our religion, our country – all of the things we use when we are introducing ourselves, or when we think of our biographical details. This self-identity is the work of the first half of life.
But all of these ways of defining ourselves are only the container for our inner being, our soul; our deepest truest, real self. In other words, the false self is our ego. The false self is what we get attached to – the source of so much of our suffering, as Buddhist teaching uncovers. This is the self that, at one point, Jesus calls us to die to.
For people of Christian faith, we say that our truest self is that we are children of a loving God. That is who we are, and nothing can ever change that. This is what we are called to live into; the resurrected self that follows the dying to self.
So, Rohr says, whenever we are offended, whenever we feel the urge to have an angry response, it is most likely our false selves that are being offended.
So, when our team, our family, our group is insulted or criticized, or feels threatened, our false self responds the way the people of Nazareth did when Jesus suggested that God loves foreigners. Resistance comes from the false self, the ego-self.
The Big Picture Lesson
So the gospel text we read today is a story about people who are resisting the Jesus path. Taken by itself, in isolation from the longer story of Jesus, it is a rather negative lesson. But let us draw back and look again at the big picture.
God does love both Israelites and non-Israelites, as Jesus taught. And this is especially good news to us, who are non-Israelites. The good news really is good news. Jesus moved on from there and found people who did not resist his message, but embraced it. They found in the good news of the kingdom, a source of life and healing.
Let that be what this story calls us to: to be people who examine our own resistance, so that we can lower it, all the way down, to the point that we accept, even joyfully accept the Jesus path.
A Lenten Practice
How can we do this? I have a practical suggestion. The season of Lent is just a couple of weeks away. Ash Wednesday is Feb. 10th. Often we give up something we enjoy in Lent, as a spiritual practice. Let us make it count this time. I would like you to consider giving up some time.
Instead of giving up chocolate or meat or candy, consider giving up a regular set amount of time every day; time for reading. Consider reading somethings that will help you on your spiritual journey.
We have enough time between now and Lent for you to select a book and either find it locally or to order it. I would be happy to make recommendations. I would begin with Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self, or Falling Upward, a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. And there are many other great wisdom sources.
Let us all be people of the Jesus path, who recognize resistance as a sign of the places we need to grow in. And let us intentionally engage the kind of spiritual practices that promote spiritual growth. Let us make use of special seasons, like Lent, to be even more intentional, and make it count, so that next year at this time we can look back and see the progress we have made. People who do not resist, but who joyfully embrace the Jesus path.