Sunday, January 31, 2016

Called to Proclaim God's Love

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)
Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; 1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Luke 4.21-30
Sunday, January 31, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

During this season of Epiphany, we have been considering the various ways in which Jesus Christ is revealed as the Son of God. This is often done through specific acts performed on or by Jesus, such as his baptism, where God specifically declared that Jesus is his Son, the Beloved; or the changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana. And in Jesus’ interactions with other people. Such as last week when we saw Jesus preaching in his hometown of Nazareth, when he implied in no uncertain terms that he is the Messiah, come to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah. Now you would think the revelation of the Son of God in the midst of the people would be cause for great celebration. But that did not always prove to be the case. Sometimes what was revealed about Jesus was not particularly popular among those present. Such is the case in our Gospel reading for today, which is a continuation of Jesus’ experience in Nazareth.

Initially, there is a sense of shock and disbelief when the fact that Jesus is the Messiah begins to sink in. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” How can a boy who grew up in Nazareth possibly be the long-awaited Messiah? After all, they know who he is. They know his family. They watched him grow up. But in this remembrance of who Jesus is, the son of Joseph, there is also a sense of fondness for the boy, now the man standing before them. The man claiming to be the Messiah. They want to believe him. After all, who doesn’t love a good small town boy makes good story? Their sense of disbelief quickly gives way to other feelings. They’ve heard the stories of what Jesus has done. What he did in Capernaum. How he ministered to some Gentiles. If he cared for Gentiles, non-Jews, surely he would care for his own people even more. You can almost hear what thoughts begin to form in their minds. “Oh, goody goody! Here’s the Messiah and he’s one of our own. Maybe we can benefit from this. Maybe we will receive extra blessing if he is indeed the Messiah.”

It’s as if Jesus is reading their minds. Jesus projects the feelings of the people before they even speak. And he’s not going to have any of it. So he pushes their collective button. What he says to them in response amounts to “Doubtless, you’re going to want me all for yourself, but I’m going to focus my ministry on outcasts, on outsiders.” Admittedly, Jesus does bait them a little (in my humble opinion). He does this by referencing stories from the Hebrew Bible that would have been well-known to them. How the prophet Elijah, in a time of drought and famine, went not to the aid of his own people, but instead provided food and comfort to a widow at Zarephath. To a Gentile. And how the prophet Elisha, instead of providing healing to the many Jewish lepers in the land, chose instead to cleanse and heal Naaman the Syrian. Another Gentile.

The message was unmistakable. In citing the situations involving Elijah and Elisha, Jesus is highlighting that mercy and healing are extended to those who are considered outsiders. The mercy and healing of God are no longer reserved for just the Jews. And this means that Jesus’ mission as Messiah is both to Israel and to the non-Jewish outsiders. The reason Jesus does this is to transform the people and their understanding of God, God’s work, and God’s love, into something more expansive. But the people of Nazareth – good, devout Jews who believe themselves to be God’s Chosen People – are not ready to hear this harsh new reality. And so they drive him out of town.

While the people of Nazareth may not have viewed this new revelation as particularly good news, for us it certainly is good news. It is great news! That God’s love, mercy, and healing are extended to all people, even to us. Like the widow, we are fed at God’s table with the body and blood of our Lord. Like Naaman, we are cleansed in the water of baptism and healed of our sins.

While the Gospel ends on a rather violent note with the people of Nazareth angered by Jesus’ proclamation, the Epistle reading, the famous “love chapter” from 1 Corinthians, expands on Jesus’ message. While this much-beloved passage is often used at weddings, it is not really about the love between spouses, but rather is praise of the loving spirit that ought to be exhibited within and by the Christian community. Paul is urging that the Christian community be known for a radical form of love, an inclusive love.

Paul tells the church in Corinth, and all Christians, that the love of God through Christ is what truly enlivens the community. That the love among the members of the church is meant to be a reflection of God’s love. This love is not limited, is not fickle, as human love can often be. This love is characterized by patience and kindness. This love does not resort to envy, boasting, arrogance, or rudeness. Those who demonstrate and live in God’s love do not insist on always being right and getting their own way. In this love, there is no room for irritability or resentfulness, for condoning wrongdoing, or even worse, self-righteously delighting when others do wrong. As Paul tells us, this love that God has for us, that is demonstrated by the person of Jesus Christ, is the ultimate truth, in that it bears and endures all things in the hope of the power of that love. A love that is without end. As the Body of Christ, imbued with and called to show forth the love of God to the world, we hold on to the certainty that in our life together, in our lives as those who follow Christ, that “faith, hope, and love abide . . . and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13.13). We are called to live out of that love, with that love informing all our speech and actions, because we have known the love of God in our own lives. Paul reminds us to act with love in all things, because the bottom line is that love conquers all injustices, love outlasts everything else.

Now, it’s one thing to talk about this radical love and living it within the safety of our church walls. That is reasonably well accomplished. After all, we like each other and get along pretty well. But what about outside these walls?

In our world today, there are many who, in the words of the Apostle Paul, are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Those who, though adults, reason and speak as children. They are quick to speak, and in some cases, to act, out of their limited, exclusive brand of “love,” out of ignorance and hate, not out of the love that God desires from us. What then? How do we deal with such attitudes, such expressions and utterances, which are the antithesis of what Christ is proclaiming? You just have to open the newspaper or turn on the TV to be confronted with examples of such hateful speech and action. For that matter, spend much time at all outside the safety of your own home, and you hear such hateful speech firsthand. Ridicule, condemnation, of Muslims, illegal immigrants, refugees, the homeless, people of color, people viewed as other. And in more extreme cases, such rhetoric becomes embodied in violent actions. Jesus proclaims that just as the widow of Zarephath, just as Naaman the Syrian, these too are loved and cared for by God as much as any of us are. That these are our brothers and sisters, and therefore equally deserving of our love.

Now I know that we are not the problem here. We are not the perpetrators of injustice, at least not consciously or overtly. Even so, as Christians, we still need to apply the principles of love laid out by Jesus, as laid out by Paul. In this, we do need to be aware of injustice in the world around us and to be prepared to respond accordingly. That means having the courage to speak up and demonstrate God’s inclusive love when we hear of situations where exclusivity is proclaimed, where hate is spewed. The call of God’s people is to witness in the world to God’s inclusive love and mercy and justice, so that these might ultimately prevail. The only way that God’s love will prevail is if we boldly demonstrate it to others – just as Jeremiah, in our Old Testament reading, was called to proclaim that same message.

About 600 years before Jesus, Jeremiah lived in a time of great social, political, and religious turmoil in Judah. In response to these conditions, often characterized by fear and hate, Jeremiah is called to preach God’s word in the midst of these difficult conditions. To try to turn people back to the truth of God’s love. To try to bring reconciliation among the people, and between the people and their God.

I love this story of the beginning of Jeremiah’s ministry that we heard today. God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet. But Jeremiah does not think he has what it takes to be a messenger for God. He throws out all sorts of arguments why he is not suited. But God has decided. God wants Jeremiah. And God will give him the strength necessary to carry God’s message to his people. In this, Jeremiah is a model for all of us. To speak out against the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals we may encounter. Offering instead a message of inclusivity and love.

When I wrote my spiritual autobiography for entry into the process toward Holy Orders, I opened with the words God spoke to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. And before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1.5). I used that as a springboard to talk about my sense of calling to ministry. I chose this passage not because I though myself destined for greatness like Jeremiah, but because I believe that God calls each of us, from even before our birth, forming us in the womb for our own special ministry. He consecrates each of us to be prophets that proclaim the message of his love.

Today’s scripture readings, taken together, paint a particular picture of who Jesus is and how this directly translates into our lives as his followers. Even more so in light of contemporary social conditions. The picture is crystal clear. As was Jeremiah, as followers of Jesus, as members of the community that is the Body of Christ – you are called; you are consecrated; you are appointed as prophets. Go forth and proclaim the message of God’s love.

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