Sermons That Work

Putting God’s Expectations above Our Own, Epiphany 4 (C) – 2013

February 03, 2013


Lottery winners. Have you ever met one? It is quite an exciting thing when a lottery winner is from your hometown, bought his ticket from your favorite corner store, or is a member of your family. It’s as if you get to share in their good fortune just by being near them. Of course they would want to give away some of their substantial blessing to you because you went to high school together or opened the door of a restaurant for them once or are their cousin. You are proud of this person until you find out that they aren’t planning on sharing anything with you. Or maybe they are sharing a little bit, but are giving more to another person or charity. Then what?

A March 30, 2012 online article from the publication International Business Times provides two cautionary tales about people who struck it rich: Jack Whittaker of West Virginia won the lottery and then had two relatives and his daughter’s boyfriend die. He also had a number of lawsuits filed against him and blames it all on the win. Another winner, Jeffrey Dampier, was 26 years old when he won the Illinois lottery. He was then kidnapped and murdered by his sister-in-law and her boyfriend in hopes that they would receive the winnings after his death.

One person’s fortune can turn another into a jealous, scheming, sometimes tortured mess. This doesn’t just go for lottery winners, but also for any kind of joy that another has. Your co-worker gets the promotion you’ve been striving for. The couple next door has no trouble getting pregnant while you and your spouse have been trying for years. Your friend gets on the varsity team that you desperately wanted to be on to and you didn’t. We can’t help but berate the other person in our minds and close our hearts off to shared joy or a widened vision of blessing. It’s human nature and it is difficult to combat.

When Jesus came to his hometown of Nazareth and began to teach, the local Jewish community was quite proud of him. After all, they had heard of the things that he had done at Capernaum and were convinced that he was some sort of prophet from God. They believed that Jesus had just won the lottery, so to speak, and was about to shower them with God’s favor because, after all, he was one of them, so of course that is what he would do. Besides, they agreed with what he was saying – at least at first. But as long as they were pleased, they were proud and they wanted to preen in the light of special favor from God.

Then Jesus starts talking about the blessing going not to those in his midst, but further abroad, to gentiles. He uses stories of Elijah and Elisha where God healed and included people that were not part of the usual fold. He teaches that God’s liberation is more inclusive and abundant than the exclusive covenant that the people in the synagogue believed God had with them. With this, everything changes.

It is interesting how the mind can turn quickly when we do not agree with someone. We may feel that a priest, a CEO, a political leader, a teacher or a friend is wonderful until they say or do something that isn’t exactly what we believe. Then we are shocked or angry. After all, we like to congregate with like-minded people because it feels good to be part of a group that we understand and that we think understands us as well. When someone who we feel belongs to us says something contrary or challenges the current status, we are often quick to turn on him or her. It is one thing for an outsider to say or do something divergent, but a whole other game when it is one of our own.

This is where we find Jesus in our gospel story today. When the unheard-of inclusiveness of Jesus’ message became clear to those in his home congregation, their commitment to their own community and the boundaries they erected overtook the joy that they initially had in receiving a prophet of God in their midst. They were blinded by indignation and did not want to believe that God’s grace is not subject to our lists of who is in and who is out. It cannot be tamed by our human desire to be special. Often, this very grace scandalizes us so much that we are simply unable to receive it for ourselves. Thus begins a vicious cycle: if we are unable to receive such grace, how, then, can we share it with others? We cannot.

This is the cautionary tale that we receive from those at Jesus’ hometown synagogue. They were so focused on what they believed God’s blessing should look like – just for them – that they missed the opportunity of grace that Jesus was bearing. The gospel says that they “were filled with rage” and “drove him out of town.” How dare Jesus tell them who should be included? How dare Jesus tell us?

Part of becoming a maturing Christian is learning how to put our boundaries and expectations aside in order to listen to what God’s are. This is difficult work and it is lifelong. In our epistle reading today, the Apostle Paul is encouraging the churches in Corinth to love in the radical way that Jesus teaches. They are enmeshed in conflict around what spiritual gifts are the greatest. To help them understand, Paul writes to them of love and spiritual maturity. He likens the growth of our hearts to the growth in our life cycle, “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.” We know that when we are children, we have a narrow view of the world. It is always about us and what is in our immediate vicinity. As we grow into adulthood and experience more of life, we understand how big the world is. As we mature as Christians, we understand more fully what grace is, and it continues to widen our hearts through love.

Being a Christian isn’t easy. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever tell us that it is. It requires things of us, as it says in our Book of Common Prayer’s Catechism: “The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.” This is a full-time job that shapes our lives. It calls us to live, to die to ourselves and be resurrected with Jesus over and over and over again. With each time, our hearts get a little wider, we know grace that much more deeply, and we are able to follow Jesus a little bit more down the road of love.

When Jesus speaks to his hometown synagogue, he’s speaking to our hometown church, too. Paul echoes Jesus’ message, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” What does God’s love look like in your church? Open the ears of your heart to listen for it, and walk in grace to find out.

 — The Rev. Danáe Ashley is priest-in-charge of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minn.

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