Monday, February 1, 2010

Homily: 4 Epiphany [January 31, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

When we left Christ Church Cranbrook in 1981, Kathy and Oliver and I moved to Southern California. The next year I became Vicar of St. Aidan's in Malibu where I served for the balance of the 1980s while going to graduate school at UCLA. Malibu was a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it! As you can imagine, there were a lot of colorful characters in Malibu, but one of the best of them was a parishioner named Edna Cox. Edna was a widow whose husband had patented several inventions, and so she had the resources to be a generous supporter of many causes in the community. One day when I was visiting her, she said, "Now, son, I never pledge, but I'll give to any special project you have. So when you see something you think the church really needs, just ask me."

A few weeks after this visit, Edna and I were standing at the back of the church as the closing hymn was ending. Now St. Aidan's is a nice, small, 1960's church building situated on a hillside across the Pacific Coast Highway from Paradise Cove. It has an unparalleled natural vista, but at that time it also had some of the ugliest church furnishings you could imagine. The chief offenders in that line were a pair of hideous tall gilt candlesticks on the altar that looked like they were intended for impaling parishioners in arrears on their pledges. Though they were obviously expensive, these Viking style weapons of doom were unspeakably ugly. So, remembering Edna's offer of generous help with any special project I might have, I sidled up to her and said, "You know, Edna, we've got to do something about those God-awful candlesticks."
Edna paused for a moment, looked me straight in the eye, and replied, "I gave those God-awful candlesticks." As you can imagine, I was deeply embarrassed, but luckily for me Edna was both a generous and forgiving person. We laughed over this conversation many times in the ensuing years. Those candlesticks are still there.
Whenever I read today’s Gospel, I remember this interchange, and I take some comfort that Jesus himself seemed to have had issues about controlling his speech. Certainly, Jesus's words today to the home town crowd were not chosen to win friends and influence people. The two stories he tells-one about the prophet Elijah being sent in a drought and famine to help not an Israelite but a Philistine, the other about the prophet Elisha healing not a Jew but a Syrian from leprosy-these stories were obviously deeply offensive to a hometown crowd of pious people who believed themselves to be God's elect. In the first part of this story, which we heard last week, Jesus audaciously claimed himself to be the embodiment of Israel's Messianic hopes; today he goes on to tell God's chosen people that they weren't really all that special. Hearing that, I don't feel so bad. At least I didn't tell Edna Cox I was the Messiah.
Whatever the reason, Jesus's words riled up the hometown crowd. Luke puts it this way: "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." [Luke 4.28-29] We always think of Jesus as the very model of a teacher and preacher. Yet here he was eliciting such rage from the Nazareth synagogue that they responded to his words not with admiration but with a desire to kill. What was going on?
Part of the congregation's reaction to Jesus has to do with his being a local boy returned home to preach for the first time. "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country." For some in the synagogue, Jesus's very familiarity worked against him. But there's more to it than that. When the local crowd begins to disbelieve him, he tells them stories about God's seeming preference for outsiders. "You think you're special," he seems to say, "but God cares as much for Philistines and Syrians—people you have traditionally defined as your enemies--as he does for Jews." If you believe you're special, hearing someone say you're not is probably not going to stir them to sign up for your fan club.
Today is the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, a day whose theme is Peace. In our collect for today, we asked God to "mercifully hear the supplications" of God's people, and "in our time grant us God's peace." Because of this collect, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany has traditionally been a Sunday on which Episcopal churches pray for peace. All of us look for peace-international peace, interpersonal peace, interior peace. Given what we've seen and heard in today's Gospel, what might this Sunday have to say to us in 21st century America about our desire for peace? I hear two things.
The first thing I hear is that words matter. There are a couple of places in the New Testament where Jesus loses his cool and speaks in provocative ways. If you believe, as I do, that we see Jesus grow and mature over the course of the Gospel narratives, then perhaps it's not irreligious to suggest that at this early moment in his ministry Jesus was not quite the master of himself that he was in his more mature teaching moments such as the Good Samaritan story (which makes essentially the same point). Jesus evoked the rage of the crowd here, and I'm not so sure that we're supposed to see that as a good thing. Certainly their reaction is uncalled for. But telling a group of observant Jews that God loves Philistines and Samaritans better is a bit like yelling fire in a crowded theater. Later on in the Gospels, Jesus is no less forceful, but he is more tactful. After this, he no longer hurls fighting words at his adversaries. Rather, the more he matures, the more he turns their own fighting words back on them.
So point one is that if we want peace we need to use words that promote peace. This does not mean that we need to be weak or naive or to compromise our principles. But there are ways for people with opposing interests to learn to live with each other and actually work together for the common good. At his best, Jesus always proceeds out of an acknowledgment of the good intentions of the other. As Reinhold Niebuhr often observed, nobody in this world thinks they are doing evil. Everyone pretty much operates out of their sense of the good. It's only in melodrama and cartoons that the villain acts out of pure malignity. As Christians, our task is to make common cause between us and other people's best selves, and that means trying to see the world from their best intentions, from their point of view. One strong way to promote peace is to speak respectfully to and of everyone--even of people who stand for principles with which you strongly disagree.
The other thing I hear in this story is our need to expand our notion of who is in and diminish our notion of who is out. The Nazareth congregation erupts in rage because Jesus has equated them with Philistines and Syrians. But what if their definition of themselves had been big enough to see Philistines and Syrians not as "others" but as "themselves"? Again, as Reinhold Niebuhr often observed, we human beings are better in our relations with those close to us than we are with those at a distance. We empathize and identify with people we know. We fear those who are radically different or removed from us. As long as I stand inside a very small circle and define that space as the boundary of what is regular or normative, leaving everyone outside it defined as abnormal or deficient--if I see myself as the normal human being and everyone else as somehow less than me or an aberration-then I'm cleaving to a modern version of the Nazareth congregation's horror at being equated with a Syrian or a Philistine. You and I have more in common not only with each other but with people radically different from us than we think we do. Our task, as followers of Jesus, is to expand the diameter of the circle of people we think of as being like us, of those with whom we share a common human identity.
It's easy (and not particularly admirable) to love and accept people like ourselves. It's work to love and accept the other in ourselves, to see the self in the other. The constant clash of cultures we experience today makes contemporary living a challenge, because every day we are presented with images of people whose worlds and realities look very different from our own. But if we want God to give us peace in our time, we will need both separately and together to look for the best in the other, and we'll need to see the other in ourselves. And that is as true for a church, a community, a family, a workplace, as it is for the arena of international relations. Walt Kelly was not entirely joking when he had Pogo say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
Our nation is polarized. There are real enmities and conflicts in the world. Christians are not called to be naive about those things. But we are called to be the people who look for the best in each other and in those around us. When God looks at you, God sees you as God would have us see each other: God sees you as your best self, operating out of your best intentions, as one worthy of God's grace and care and protection. So—and this may sound audacious--let's try to be a bit more like God. Let's speak to each other--at home, at work, in the civic square and marketplace, in the public and international arenas, even in church--in words that are respectful of that divine image incarnate in every human being. And let's push that circle each day to be a little bit wider, so that we come to see our self in the other, the other in our self. Amen.

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