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Epiphany 5: God Meets Us At The Margins

February 4, 2013

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, February 3, 2013. Epiphany is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see. What God is up to in the birth of this child becomes increasingly clear to an ever-expanding circle of witnesses. On this penultimate Sunday of Epiphany we arrive at the very margins of community and comprehension.

Jeremiah 1: 4-10          1 Corinthians 13          Luke 4: 21-30

Last week, Jesus began his public ministry by standing up in his hometown synagogue and reading from the Scriptures, from the Scroll of the Prophet 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,

and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he concluded by saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I said then that this scripture is nothing less than a proclamation of the biblical Jubilee, “Israel’s hedge against the inevitable tendency of human societies to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few.” The practice of Jubilee is God’s mandate for a regular dismantling of social inequality, redistributing power and wealth by:

– releasing community members from debt (Leviticus 25: 35-42; Deuteronomy 15: 1-11)

– returning encumbered or forfeited land to its original owners (Leviticus 25: 13, 25-28); and

– freeing slaves (Leviticus 25: 47-55, Deuteronomy 15: 12-18).

Thus Jesus public ministry began with a clear program, or mission statement, if you will: radical social equality. And though it would seem almost unimaginable today, it was then simply the basis of the entire covenantal system. And in Jesus’ day, as in ours, it was in desperate need of renewal. No wonder the village elders looked upon him with wonder and amazement when he chose this text to begin his public ministry.

But this week, well that’s another story. This week, we pick up the story of what happened after Jesus finished reading the scripture and then added some very simple but provocative words at the end. Listen for the Word of God:

[Read Luke 4: 21-30].

After the initial show of enthusiasm over his selection of scripture and his voice of authority, Jesus quickly wears out his welcome in Nazareth by telling stories about times past when God demonstrated divine generosity by bringing “good news” to those outside Nazareth, outside Galilee, even outside Israel, bypassing those inside the community of faith. Apparently, in Jesus ministry, this good news, this exodus from everything that oppresses, this liberation from everything that binds, this forgiveness of everything that can’t be undone, this radical social contract that weaves together a community in which wounds are healed, needs are met and hopes are nurtured: this message will be proclaimed first and foremost not to the insiders, the bearers and keepers of God’s promises, but to the outsiders, the foreigner and outcast.

Moreover, Jesus seems to be implying that sometimes it is only those on the outside who are ready and able to embrace the good news. I guess Jesus was right.

At this point the story becomes, literally, a cliffhanger. As the late Robert McAfee Brown put it, “The irate listeners hustle Jesus out of the synagogue, and all of them jostle their way to the top of one of those high hills surrounding Nazareth. They have a plan: they are going to swing him three times out over the steepest cliff they can find and let go on the third swing. So much for hometown boys who come back and try to tell off their elders.”

To be fair, that God’s news is radically good news for the poor is not something original with Jesus. It is the vision of the prophets as far back as Amos, and this theme runs throughout the Hebrew scripture. It’s just that Jesus, perhaps not knowing enough to quit while he’s ahead, after all this is his first sermon, has to point out that “it is often people “outside” the established our religious community or any religious community who are able to hear and respond faithfully to God’s call, while people on the “inside” often reject the message and the messenger.”

But why should this be?

The Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, has suggested that Jesus’ neighbors in Nazareth cannot understand him because they think they know who he is, the carpenter’s son, the “son of Joseph”, and this prevents them from seeing something new.  “Those who pretend to know everything are not open to learning and even less [so] if the teaching comes from a source whose value they refuse to admit. To put it another way, “what we think we know prevents us from paying attention to what is new, especially if it comes from an insignificant and marginal source. Jesus reminds us,” writes Gutiérrez, that God “challenges us through those we do not know how to appreciate.” In other words, it is not the radically good news of social equality per se that offended the good folk of Nazareth, (rather it was) Jesus insistence that this equality has already begun with those outside their own circle.

The God of Jesus, our God, is a God who is always pushing the envelope, stretching our limits, crossing boundaries of inside and outside. So its important that each of us know where our own boundaries are, our own limits, because it is precisely at those places that God is going to speak to us. Who is it that we do not appreciate as we should, and so fail to hear the good news God would speak to us through that person? Sometimes such a person is well-known to us; in fact it might even be ourselves. Our prayer ministry, is planning to use one of their upcoming meetings to explore just this topic: how do we, and why should we, love those we find it easier to hate?

The unexpected news which Jesus shares in his first sermon is that there is a wideness to God’s mercy beyond any of our imaginations, and God meets us at the margins of our understanding. This is a truth we cannot comprehend, but only experience in, and through, and as, love.

Luke places this story, good literary artist that he is, at the beginning of his gospel in order to emphasize that Jesus did not go about offering God’s good news to the poor, the outcast and the foreigner because he was rejected by his people. Rather, Jesus was rejected by his hometown people because he offered God’s Good News primarily to the poor, the outcast and the foreigner.

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This morning, God extends the broadest possible invitation to this communion celebration.  For this table has been prepared by God for us and for all who long to hear God’s good news. We come to this table to practice jubilee. Here we recognize, if only for a moment, the radically egalitarian intentions of God. At this table all are welcomed and all are valued, and asked to be open. Here is the place where we can freely expose our wounds; our emotional wounds, our economic wounds, our physical wounds, our spiritual wounds, and trust God’s mercy.

Here is where we lay aside all privilege, all division, all pretense that our faith has anything to do with what we know or what we deserve.

Come to this table not because you must, but because you may, not because you are strong, but because you are weak.  Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you right to come, but because you need mercy and help.  Come because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more.  Come, because He loved you and gave Himself for you.  Come and meet the Risen Christ, for we are His Body.

Let us pray: …

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