020319 Epiphany 4c
Most churches have an easier time with their Annual Meeting than we just did. Translating information into three different languages, and filtering its meaning through even more cultures, is a challenge we still have to meet. We are not there yet. I know that, and am willing to say it to you. But if an outsider were to come up to me and say that I was disrespectful of other cultures in the way I ran the meeting this morning, I would immediately be on the defensive.
We hate it when people tell us an uncomfortable truth and we know they’re right. I remember being part of a peer supervision group in which we confronted each other’s blind spots in leadership to learn to be better leaders. I came to love the group, but I remember how threatened I was the first times I was confronted with my blind spots in leadership. It was painful to face them. I kept going back because I knew I had to be aware of them to become a good leader.
Last week we looked at the first half of today’s Gospel lesson – Jesus’ sermon to those gathered in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus returned as a young adult to the village that helped raise him – not just his mother and brothers and sisters but also the neighbors who had kept him when his mother was sick, and the shopkeepers who had let him run errands for them, the old men who had leaned on their sticks in the heat of the day and told him stories that made his hair stand on end. He was their son too, so of course he went home to them, wanting to give them the best of what he had to offer. The people of Nazareth had heard reports of the great things Jesus did in Capernaum. He gave them a dramatic message from Isaiah.
In the second half of the story we heard Jesus push the sermon to the edge and get push back from the townspeople who literally pushed him to the edge of town. Jesus confronted his former neighbors with the uncomfortable truth that the least expected people often respond to God more than the expected ones and God in turn responds to them; and the most irritating truth of all: that everybody loses when we fail to love our enemy. The enemy loses because we block God’s work in their life; we lose because we miss the insight into God’s grace that we gain when we see God transform the very ones we call enemy. We turn people who are different from us into enemies because we don’t understand their behavior so we’re not sure we can control it. That makes us afraid of anyone who lives on or beyond the edge of our known world, like the ones Jesus cited-the poor, prisoners, the blind and (we could add) people from other cultures, the mentally challenged, immigrants, etc.
The people of Nazareth tried to get rid of the truth by killing the messenger. Do you blame them? Doesn’t it make you angry when someone tries to get you to reason with your enemy? Just when I’m really enjoying being angry with an enemy, someone comes along and suggests that my enemy is partly right. It makes my blood boil. I don’t want someone to say, “Well, have you looked at it from their side?” That’s the last thing I want to hear when I’m angry.
We do the same thing with God. Religious people want God to oppose their enemies like they do. We want God to protect us from them rather than push us toward them. We’d rather have God bring vengeance on our enemies than reconcile us with them. That’s why the people of Nazareth were already a little edgy after Jesus read the Isaiah passage. They knew their Bibles; they knew Jesus left out a key phrase. The final verse didn’t end after, “proclaim the year of God’s favor.” It went on: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” One could not come without the other. God’s favor for Israel was tied up with God’s vengeance on Israel’s enemies. Their enemies would finally get what’s coming to them. That’s what they waited for.
But Jesus’ vision went beyond Isaiah’s. Clearly Jesus intentionally left out the final phrase. And he couldn’t just leave it at that. He had to make sure people understood the level of inclusiveness that was central to his message. If “the year of God’s favor” meant anything, it had to include enemies as well as friends. So he told two stories from their sacred history: one about a nameless widow in Zarephath who was about to die of starvation, and one about Naaman, a Syrian general who was a leper. Both were foreigners; both were healed or saved by prophets of Israel.
In the time of Elijah there was a famine in Israel and in the surrounding lands. There were many poor widows in Israel who needed food. God sent Elijah to Sidon, a land north of Israel, to find food and water during the famine. There he met a widow who was down to her last scrap of food. She was preparing it for her son and herself before they died. Elijah told her not to be afraid; the three of them had enough meal and oil until the famine ended. The synagogue crowd started mumbling: “Is he saying God likes Gentiles better than Jews?”
Then Jesus tells a story from the time of Elisha. There were many sick lepers in Israel who received no cure. Instead Elisha cured Naaman, the General of Syria’s army, one of Israel’s enemies. Naaman’s wife had an Israeli slave girl who told her mistress that the prophet Elisha could heal her husband’s leprosy. The general told the king of Syria. He sent a letter to the king of Israel. When the king of Israel read it he tore his clothes. He feared Syria was trying to provoke a war. Elisha intervened and healed Naaman. Then Naaman worshipped Israel’s God.
When people feel on edge the last thing they want to hear is a message that invites them to go closer to the edge. The people in Nazareth were living the same reality as the rest of Israel: they were a colony of Rome. Rome was their enemy. They were awaiting a Messiah who was going to liberate them from Rome. What kind of Messiah shows up and announces the day of the Lord’s favor without also bringing the day of vengeance long ago promised? When Jesus reminded them that during previous crises, God seemed to favor their enemies, they were incensed. One writer says, “Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth embedded in their own tradition.” (Fred Craddock) That might be good for Americans to remember these days.
Rabbi Ed Friedman wrote a lot about how families and societies mature. One life principle he discovered is: “there is no way out of a chronically painful condition except by being willing to go through a temporarily more acutely painful phase.” (A Failure of Nerve, p. 202) Applied to families this means that families that are stuck show a low capacity for enduring pain. When we are motivated to get on with life, we tolerate more pain; our threshold for pain increases.
Jesus understood the same thing. He knew he would provoke more pain by telling those stories. But he knew he had to raise people’s threshold for pain to help them mature beyond mere love for their own tribe. We don’t like being told that our enemies are God’s friends. No matter how hard we try, we can’t get God to let us stay behind our boundaries – our walls! God plows right through them, inviting us to follow or get out of the way. The big lie we’re being told now is that we need to do all we can to keep the world at arm’s distance: with walls, immigration bans, tariffs and military threats. God’s truth is that all creation is one holy web of relationships, with gifts meant for all; creation vibrates with the pain of all its parts because its true destiny is joy
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that mature people understand that “we should expect to be challenged and upset by the truth, by people sent to yank our chains and upset our equilibrium so we don’t confuse our own ideas about God with God.” (Home by another Way) In the scriptures of all the great religions, including Christianity, God is defined precisely as “Other”; mystery; beyond imagination; outside the realm of the familiar. This is one thing scripture means when it calls God Holy; not because of some moral quality but because of God’s mystery and otherness from us. In the Bible, God is revealed mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected and the unfamiliar; in what’s different; in surprise. That’s why the scriptures insist on welcoming strangers: since God is “Other”, strangers, above all others, are the most likely to carry God’s revelation.
This is difficult to hear today because we’re overwhelmed by otherness. More than previous generations, we’re being stretched beyond what is familiar. Meanwhile the current administration and the millions who support it tells us that the other is the threat. At a macro level, that offends us. But at a personal level, we often experience the other as a threat. That double whammy is painful and disorienting. Our boundaries, values and ideas are under constant redefinition as we try to hold onto eternal truths. We live in muddy waters where truth is treated as much a threat as the other. It would be great if we could just get rid of the mud. That’s not going to happen soon. We need to be equipped to live with the mud. We’ve never grasped truth deeply enough. We get it in small pieces. That’s why we call it a mystery. The painful truth is that many of the pieces needed to fill out those mysteries lie in what’s foreign to us, in what’s other, strange, and different. That’s what Jesus was saying.
Rabbi Friedman notes that chronically anxious families will seek professionals who promise the most comfort; who help them avoid or reduce their pain as quickly as possible, rather than those who offer the most opportunities to mature by encouraging them to endure their pain in order to move toward higher goals. The latter ones offer grace around the edges.
Who is the hardest other for you to include in your circle? It’s easy to criticize those who struggle to accept the ones you easily accept. But that only makes us feel self-righteous, since we don’t consider that enemy an enemy. The only way Jesus’ invitation to love our enemy will heal us is if it leads us to face the one we call enemy. Let’s pray for the power to do that.