Monday, February 1, 2016

The Walls Come Tumbling Down

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.’" Luke 4:24

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard
January 31, 2016 – Epiphany 4C

Last week we were with Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth listening to him give his first sermon before the hometown crowd. You remember the sermon, the one in which Jesus quotes from Isaiah, saying the spirit has landed upon him, and that he now understands his task in life: Jesus is to bring good news to the poor, to liberate the captives, to restore sight to the blind and to offer freedom and wholeness to all. Luke tells us that the crowd was amazed, at least at first, but then things turn a little ugly.

The crowd is delighted to hear Jesus’ message of redemption, and that he has apparently already done miraculous works elsewhere, in places like Capernaum.  But they want proof, you see.  It is one thing to hear a good sermon about God’s saving grace, but the proof is in the pudding, and the crowd demands that they receive a sign of God’s blessing. “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum,” they say to him.  They want evidence of Jesus’ claims; in particular, they want the hometown boy to bless his hometown friends and family first before he goes off to save the world.

And here is where Jesus’ message challenges, and ultimately, enrages them.  “God does not work that way,” Jesus in effect says. Grace is not to be manipulated by those who believe they deserve its favor. God’s saving grace is unbidden. Unbidden. It comes unexpectedly and freely, and it falls upon those who, in purely human terms, often seem the least deserving of its benefits.

And to illustrate his point, Jesus reminds the crowd of two well-known stories from the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, and the story of Elisha healing the Syrian warrior Naaman. These stories deserve our attention, because understanding them both explains why the crowd gets upset and gives us an important insight into the nature of Jesus’ mission.

In the first story, you will remember that in the midst of a great famine Elijah is commanded by God to visit a Gentile woman in Sidon, and not just any woman, but a poor widow, on the brink of starvation. And, even though the widow and her young son are literally down to their last meal, God commands her to feed Elijah. Bewildered and confused by the command, the widow nevertheless trusts. And then, somehow, in the midst of their desperation, in the midst of utter scarcity, God provides enough food for Elijah, the woman and her son to eat; and not only that, but when the widow’s son then suddenly falls ill and appears to succumb to death, God works through Elijah to breath new life into the boy.

The great prophet, Elijah, begins his public ministry not by breaking bread with his kin, with the chosen people of Israel, but instead is directed by God to reach out first to the stranger. Elijah is sent by God not to rescue the elite, or the elect, or the devout; but first he is sent to a foreign nation, to a forsaken widow and her starving little boy, to the least of the least.

The second story Jesus mentions – the story of Elisha’s healing of Naaman – develops this same theme but pushes it even further. Naaman is the commander-in-chief of the Arameans, a powerful enemy of Israel’s in what is now southern Syria. Naaman’s problem is that, notwithstanding his power, he has contracted leprosy. Elisha reaches out to Naaman, through a messenger, and tells Naaman that bathing seven times in the River Jordan can heal him. Naaman at first is furious, thinking that there is nothing special about the River Jordan and that many of the rivers back home in Syria are every bit as impressive as the Jordan. But Naaman’s servants prevail on him to listen to Elisha, and so, Naaman goes down to the Jordan and does what he is told. And sure enough, Naaman’s leprosy vanishes. He is healed.

The last person on earth we would expect the faithful God of Israel to heal is the military commander of one of Israel’s fiercest enemies. It is one thing to extend hospitality and healing to a stranger, to a vulnerable widow; quite another to save the warrior of one’s bitter enemy. And yet such is the unbidden and unexpected scope of God’s grace.

So, why does Jesus cite these two stories to the hometown crowd in Nazareth? They are, I suggest, classic border-crossing stories, showing how God’s power and love refuses to honor human boundaries and seeks to push us out of our own prejudices and fears. Try as we might to erect social boundaries that separate the clean from the unclean, or the deserving from the undeserving, try as we might to fashion political boundaries to separate the good guys from the bad guys, the white hats from the black hats, God refuses to be contained by our line-drawing. God works not within the boundaries imposed by human conceit, but across and beyond all such boundaries.

The hometown crowd was apparently expecting Jesus to focus his redemptive powers upon them first.  They may well have shared the prevailing expectation of a Messiah for the Jewish people first and foremost, a new king to reclaim Israel’s kingdom from Roman rule.  Yet, by citing these two simple Old Testament stories, Jesus is telling the good people of Nazareth that his mission knows no political boundaries, that he comes not as a new Davidic king for a restored Israel, but instead a Prince of Peace for all humanity, a Savior whose loving arms seek to embrace not only the vulnerable, but even those we regard as our fiercest enemies.

I remember as a young boy, playing with my brother in the backyard.  We would build forts out of old cardboard boxes, and we would hunker down in them for protection from unknown dangers lurking just beyond our backyard fence.  We were the good guys, and out there somewhere were the bad guys, and we were sure that so long as we stayed behind the walls of our fort we would be safe.

Such thinking is entirely natural for a child, who is first learning to differentiate himself from others, learning what it means to have agency in the world, learning to protect himself from the risks of an uncertain universe.  But then, hopefully, we grow up and learn that the world is not so black and white after all, and that hiding behind walls is almost never the path toward growth and human flourishing.  And we also learn that ‘the other’ whom we once feared is usually not so menacing after all; and the more we get to know ourselves, the more we also appreciate that we are not necessarily always on the side of virtue.

In this election cycle, it is distressing to hear so much overheated rhetoric on the airwaves from candidates and pundits alike about the need to keep America safe from the bad guys, even to build massive walls around our country, even to exclude others from traveling here based on nothing more than a person’s appearance or religious convictions.

While I will not venture into the thicket of national politics, or immigration reform, or foreign policy, it is tempting to quote St. Paul here from today’s epistle lesson:  “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

The impulse to build walls and demonize the other is, more often than not, a childish solution to the complexities of human brokenness. To play upon people’s worst fears, to exploit their prejudices, and to engage in simplistic line-drawing, likewise seems utterly contrary to everything Jesus is saying to us this evening. To be sure, there may well be occasions when people of good will, citizens of one land or another, need to defend themselves against violent attack from those unwilling to engage in a negotiated peace. But let us hear clearly Jesus’ words to us this evening:  his message is one of redemption for everyone, and much as we would like to reserve that salvation only for ourselves, and those people we like and who look like us, we are explicitly invited by Jesus in today’s lesson to look hard at all the boundaries, borders, and other lines we draw in a misguided attempt to limit God’s grace.

Stated simply, God’s vision for humanity is neither a restored kingdom for Israel, nor a “new Jerusalem” for America. Rather, as St. Paul puts it, what God discloses to us in Jesus is something radically different: it is “a new creation” for all people and all things. Jesus invites us into an altogether new way of being human in the world:  a humanity known not by boundaries, but by hospitality to the stranger; a humanity known not by violence towards one’s enemies, but by gestures of peace and healing; a humanity that is neither Jewish, nor Gentile, neither American, nor “foreign,” but a humanity that is remade and renewed in God’s image through Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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