January 30, 2022| 4th Sunday after Epiphany
Last Sunday I compared the story of the wedding at Cana, in the Gospel of John, with the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth, in the Gospel of Luke, which we continued to read today. Both stories are placed by each gospel as the first manifestation of Jesus, his first public act. And both stories are focused on joy. The family of the bridegroom is saved from shame because of the lack of wine at the wedding; rivers of wine flow at that banquet and joy is assured. The poor and oppressed receive news of their liberation in Jesus' preaching, recalling the ancient tradition of the Jubilee years; joy is announced to those who languish in chains. I derived from this comparison a suggestion about the church, about us, especially given that in the months of January and February we are also reading some pages by Paul about the church, its composition, and its purpose. My suggestion was that joy, and more precisely the joy that comes from the liberation from shame, should be at the beginning of all that we do as a church. In the words of Joseph Campbell: “A vital person vitalizes”. We as a church risk doing things mechanically and without joy, that is, without remembering that being a vital person is what matters, it is the root of everything else. “A vital person vitalizes”.
Today I would like to suggest another element or characteristic that we should foster in our being church together, and that is courage. We as a congregation may conceive of ourselves as a quiet, unassuming, and peaceful presence. We may even be proud of this, and in a sense we are right. But where does this leave courage? Look at Jesus. He is reading and preaching in the synagogue of his home town on the Sabbath day. Much as we do today, the people have convened to hear the readings and the explanation of them. Jesus finds in the Bible stories and examples, he quotes them, explains them... and then everybody gets infuriated to the point that they want to throw him down the hill. Jesus is full of the Spirit, as the evangelist says. He is full of courage as well as he is confronting his townsfolk. But what is he saying that is so offensive to them? He quotes two episodes from the saga of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The story of the Phoenician widow who helps the prophet Elijah and is, in turn, rewarded by God, and the story of the general of the Syrian army who willy-nilly accepts the suggestion of the prophet Elisha of bathing in the Jordan, and then God heals him of a serious skin disease. In both cases, these are foreigners who do the will of God and, finding themselves in situations of danger, are rescued by God. The widow is saved from destitution and from the shame of not being able to provide for her son: rivers of oil flow from her jar now, just like the rivers of wine at the wedding in Cana. The general is saved from the shame of an invalidating disease, after he is humbled and performs a ritual of purification, a sort of baptism in the river. Both stories were well known by the people who gathered on that Sabbath day in the synagogue at Nazareth. But then Jesus states that there were many widows in Israel at the time of the famine during the life of the prophet Elijah, and there were many people affected by skin disease in Israel at the time of the life of the prophet Elisha. The evangelist Luke says that it was a statement, but it might have been as well a rhetorical question designed to make his compatriots see something new: “Weren't there many widows in Israel when the Phoenician widow was saved? And weren't there many lepers in Israel when Naaman the Syrian was cured?” Not an innocent question. As soon as Jesus points out the oddity of the situation, that is, that two foreigners were the recipients of God's mercy and healing while presumably many in Israel were not spared or healed, rage explodes. This is the same Jesus who has just read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah the prophecy of liberation and has said that freedom and joy are close at hand for those who are poor and oppressed. Joy is the atmosphere of the day. Why then sudden rage? And why does Jesus deliberately provoke such rage? Apparently, nothing can be more insulting to the congregation in Nazareth than pointing out how God works in the world. They expect, and perhaps we expect, that those who are part of God's people are protected and saved, while those who do not believe, or do not believe in the right way, are not. But God works the other way around. What is the point, we may think, of being faithful if those who do not belong to the right group are chosen and saved? Nothing makes sense anymore.
The preacher, Jesus, picks up stories in the Bible which illuminate other stories, and then uses them to make people think. The same is true of all preachers. The Bible needs to be read, listened to, and interpreted. The preacher must carefully study the text in advance and pray on it. Merely individual reading, reading that is not done in community and with no previous study, simply won't do. Usually it simply confirms one's expectations, it does not challenge anybody or anything. And there is no need of courage whatsoever to preach in that way. Jesus, instead, embodies the courage of the prophets and shows himself as their true heir. Referring to the story of the foreign widow and the foreign general - an archenemy of Israel - Jesus points beyond the ordinary and the expected. One of the results of this, surely very much appreciated by the audience of the Gospel of Luke, is to point out that God welcomes everyone who has a good heart and is humble, independently of their ethnicity or belonging to the right religion. This must have been very much appreciated by the original audience of the Gospel of Luke, as the church was welcoming non-Jews into its fold. But for other audiences, such as the folks in Nazareth, and perhaps we as well, this passage may cause trouble.
Are we ready to see that God operated miracles everywhere, beyond the boundaries of the groups who proclaim themselves most faithful to him? Are we ready to accept and welcome that something really new and powerful is happening in our church, despite the announcer of such novelty being somebody whom we already know very well, like the people of Nazareth knew Jesus? Are we ready to embody the same courage that Jesus shows by speaking uncomfortable truths?
Joy and liberation are all very well. Who does not like to be freed from shame and then having a party? But courage is another matter. I would repeat that joy is the ground. Obviously not just cheerfulness or counterfeit happiness, but the deep joy that comes from interior freedom. In the words of Campbell, again: “A vital person vitalizes”. We should be wary of doing anything in the church simply for the sake of accomplishing a task. Our first job is that to consider whether our actions and our plans for actions come from joy, from our liberation from shame... or whether they come from some other, less clear place in the soul. But then courage comes. It must come. Of course, as you know, too many people confuse courage with spouting their own opinions any chance they get. Instead, look at the prophet Jeremiah. His vocation is paradigmatic. He does not want to preach and upset people. He claims that he does not have the necessary expertise. That is precisely one of the marks of true prophecy: reluctance. If we are reluctant to embrace controversial ideas and preach them, that is a good sign. But if we do not accept to be chosen, despite our self-perception, as agents of God in the world, then we are not fulfilling our life call. And those who do not respond to their life call wither away.
The teaching that emerges for me from the biblical pages of the last few weeks is that joy and courage are coupled, must be coupled, in the ministry of the church. This church, like any church, has a sacred prophetic duty. If we are the Body of Christ, we rejoice when we gather for the freedom that we experience in and through the church and that increases in us day by day. But if we are the Body of Christ, we also continue in the world Christ's prophetic, unsettling work. This brings us easily to the topic of social justice, which is a major focus for the Gospel of Luke. But we also need to be careful, again, not to embrace outside battles before we clean our home. Notice that Jesus starts his public prophetic life, according to Luke, by challenging his own. It is within the church, in the first place, that we must be prophets, and then outside as well, even to the exaggerated point of prophesizing to “nations and kingdoms” as the oracle of God tells Jeremiah. Destroying and building, plucking up and planting, are not easy jobs at all. And both are necessary. In any generation somebody shows up and becomes a prophet on a large scale. If I am to make any example, now, I might enrage you, my congregation. What about Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange? For example. Are they true prophets of our generation? Maybe yes, maybe not. The trouble is that it is still too easy to discuss who is a true prophet and who is not. The real game starts when we hear the words of God to Jeremiah as spoken to us. What is Christ Church Parish' role in the world? Yesterday the Vestry had an interesting conversation with the board of the Center for Spirituality. Most of the work of the Board is still in an embryonic stage, but, for starters, we are offering a simple composting workshop this coming Saturday, open to the neighbors. And we will be discussing the future of the parish on the same day at the Vestry retreat. The question, to me, is not how to survive, but what is our role? How can we be prophets? Not every church can be prophetic in the same way. Which is our way? As we have identified already where we want to go, how do we build the road there? Undoubtedly, we need courage, even boldness. We also need love, as the apostle Paul so eloquently reminded the church at Corinth. But not sentimentalism or a refusal to address the issues at stake, which are counterfeit love. One must be prophetic not so much in the name of love – I find this a pretense, honestly – but using love as the technique. There is pseudo-prophecy which has the aim to hurt; and then there is true prophecy, which knows that it will cause hurt yet keeps a sense of solidarity and empathy all the way with the very people that might get hurt. None of this is easy, and none comes prepackaged. Yet it comes in a moment when nothing else can matter more. The sense of duty that, at the beginning, makes one take the path of courage morphs into meaning. There is nothing more meaningful than vital action toward liberation. Liberation from oppression, liberation from self-preoccupation, liberation from any preconceived notions about life, about the world, and about God. There is nothing more meaningful that acting prophetically in community, through love. I am blessed that this small community is taking action, at a difficult time, to become who we are called to be, and does it with joy and with love. AMEN.