Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C (2/3/2019)
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
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God has a way of bursting the boundaries we set for God’s mercy, of defying our conventions and making us uncomfortable. And, managing discomfort in a healthy way does not come easily. Often, we lash out at the truth-teller, even at the truth itself, rather than allow it to change us. But the truth, even if it makes us miserable first, will ultimately make us free.
There’s an unwritten rule in preaching that if no one is troubled by your sermon, then you probably didn’t tell the whole truth. Preachers have plenty of reasons to avoid the kind of bold proclamation that Jesus exemplifies in our Gospel from Luke today. If you ruffle too many feathers, you risk losing prominent members, or dollars for ministry, or the social capital you might need to cash in on a future project. What’s more, as any honest preacher will admit, you risk forfeiting the approval you’ve grown accustomed to receiving from your listeners, that is, you might be required to give up the illusion that everyone likes you.
That’s an especially painful prospect among the community of people who knew you first, the community of people who think they know you best. Think of Jesus. His unswerving commitment to the truth carries an especially high cost in his hometown. Driven out of Nazareth by an angry mob comprised of his former neighbors, he is cut off from his roots, his family home, the place of his childhood memories. It’s the kind of rejection we go out of our way to avoid, even if it means keeping quiet about the most important and the most controversial issues.
But, Jesus has no choice but to preach the truth of God; the stakes are too high. He’s charged with casting an expansive vision of God’s love, a vision that can’t be domesticated to uphold only the interests of the in-group.
Jesus’ self-stated purpose in the verses immediately prior to today’s lection, verses from last week’s Gospel, initially causes no offense: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “because God 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 rolling up the scroll, he preaches the shortest sermon in history: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s a mic-drop, generating a buzz of amazement and approval among the people of Nazareth. After all, this is Joseph’s son. He is one of them, so the fulfillment of God’s promises in their midst must be a sign of God’s favor for them.
Only when Jesus insists on God’s concern for those outside their borders does the scene turn ugly. The prophet Elijah, he reminds them, was sent not to one of the many widows in Israel, but to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon; and none of the lepers in Israel was cleansed in the time of the prophet Elisha, but only Naaman the Syrian. Teaching in a Jewish context, in other words, Jesus points to God’s historic care for non-Jews. And at this, the people’s admiration for their hometown kid turns to rage. Ironically, by affirming God’s inclusivity, Jesus the insider becomes an outsider.
But, why the sudden change of heart? Why are Jesus’ neighbors so triggered by simple references to their own scripture? This story epitomizes the experience of the lonely prophet. Jesus stands in a long line of faithful people who pay the price for telling God’s truth to people who don’t want to hear it. As one interpreter remarks, “The people [of Nazareth] take offense not so much with what Jesus claims about himself, as with the claims that he makes about a God who is more than their own tribal deity.”
Can we see our own tendencies reflected in theirs? Our national or cultural or religious boundaries may help us make sense of the world, but it’s not necessarily God’s sense. Our categories may make life more predictable, but they’re not necessarily God’s categories. And as a result, our restrictedness inhibits us from knowing the fullness of God’s mercy. Preacher, tell us that God loves us, but whatever you do, don’t tell us that God loves them (whoever they are).
We have a hard time accepting the breadth of God’s concern because we tend to confine divine activity to an arena that we can comprehend and control. Rather than open our hearts to God’s boundless grace, we project our own limited and self-serving logic onto God. If God is for us, then how can God also be for others? This is how patriotism, for instance, leads citizens to believe that their nation somehow enjoys more favor than other nations: “God bless America, and no place else.”
To borrow a familiar adage, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” The good news is that Jesus has come to broaden our perspective. The possibilities for community are expanded according to the dream that is coming true in him. Lutheran preacher Barbara Lundblad puts it beautifully:
“Religion can be like a hometown: familiar, traditional, unchanging, a constant in a chaotic, fast-loving world. We want religion to stay the same, to look as it looked when we were children. We want to sing hymns with tunes we know: this is the faith of our childhood. We can wrap religion around us like a homemade quilt, assured that God is in heaven and all’s right with the world. . . But Jesus [has] stripped away [the] quilt. The boundaries around the chosen people [are] broken down. And now Jesus comes into our streets, into our sanctuary, saying that the prophet’s words are now fulfilled. All sorts of people we’d never invite to dinner are being welcomed to the table, to break bread and drink wine. But, if we stay, on odd thing happens: we feel the quilt grow larger. Still around us, it is also around the one we named outcast. It’s not quite the same hometown, but it’s a lot more like the dominion of God.”
Dear church, God has a way of bursting the boundaries we set for God’s mercy; God has a way of defying our conventions and making us uncomfortable. And, managing discomfort in a healthy way does not come easily. Often, we lash out at the truth-teller, even at the truth itself, rather than allow it to change us. But if we’re willing to stay, to sit with discomfort, we’ll discover that the truth, even if it makes us miserable first, will ultimately make us free.
 Luke 4:18-21.
 See R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, 107.
 David L. Ostendorf, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, 310.
 Peter Gomes, cited by Peter Eaton, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, 313.
 Chris Rock, Head of State.
 Attributed to Anaïs Nin.
 John 8:32.