Monday, January 25, 2016

Reflections for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C: On Rejection and Acceptance

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Luke 4:21-30
A few years ago...well, more than that, really...a colleague in ministry preached on this Gospel in our seminary chapel. This was a regular exercise, and a tradition in the school, that a senior would be invited to preach in their final year. It was something we all looked forward to while at the same time worrying over our ability to deliver on the challenge of ascending to a pulpit from which some of the great minds of the Church has spoken. I heard some of the best sermons of my life from preachers in that pulpit...and also some of the ones that I can say were object lessons on how not to preach. While I was in school, I heard the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Russia preach reform, a deacon of the Episcopal Church preach a tone poem on the word "Word," a powerful and roof raising sermon by a young bishop who would one day be our new Presiding Bishop and a host of other learned and grace-filled homilies by people I still count as friends.

One, in particular, stands the point that 23 years later I can still call it to mind and am still moved and challenged by its content. Terry was a transfer student from Nashotah House, and a bit of a wild child. He rode a Harley into NYC for the start of school, had a wild look in his eye and a great and bawdy sense of humor. In other words, when he stepped into the pulpit, one would have a reasonable expectation that his sermon would be, well, a little up and off the wall.

Folks were not prepared, though, for what went down that day.

The gospel for that day drew down on the narrative for the part of Luke that will be proclaimed on this coming Sunday. It spoke of Jesus' visit to the synagogue in his hometown. That time when he did that? He read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, the one proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor. This moment is seen and attested by many as the moment when Jesus claims his role as messiah, as the one who is the deliverer of Israel. Glorious....yes? The scripture has been fulfilled, hooray! Problem is, he keeps talking. People who were impressed with "little" Jesus who had grown up in their midst suddenly heard the Messiah preaching "at" them. Worse still....these were words of judgment. Not good.

Terry preached that with fervor, and when the narrative of the Gospel shifts from the crowd listening to a mob wanting to kill Jesus. Funny how public opinion can shift against you when the "good new" you are proclaiming steps over the threshold of folks' comfort levels!

When the crowd lays hands on Jesus, drives him out of the synagogue and up to the brow of a nearby hill in order to dash him down amidst the sharp rocks down below.

In short order, we go from celebrating God's favor to being all too entirely willing to kill the messenger.

Terry took us there with his senior sermon. He paused before speaking...and then, leaning out over the edge of the pulpit  he leered and grimaced while he said, "They wanted to BASH his head IN! They wanted him to FALL and DIE! They wanted his blood on their HANDS, and not only on their HANDS but also on their CLOTHES!"

With each word, he gesticulated and his eyes grew fiery with the intent of the mob's desire to KILL Jesus.

With each word, the genteel and very surprised company of scholars, seminarians and guests in the chapel were pushed further back into their pews. Eyes grew wide with shock. Fingers danced nervously on elbows as arms crossed. Even as Terry preached about acceptance moving to rejection, I watched acceptance morph into rejection. It was awful and terrible all at once. The sermon was succeeding because it was failing! He spoke to how powerful and challenging Jesus REALLY is when he shows up and when he openly and brazenly offers up a very tangible and accessible vision of the Kingdom of God. He showed how much we are anxious, and yet unprepared for the way God is made imminent in our lives with the Epiphanies that are not just relevatory, surprising joys...but also deeply revealing and challenging clarions that we are now RESPONSIBLE for being agents of God's Body brought up into new life in Jesus.

Terry's sermon ended, and we went on with the Eucharist. Folks were NOT comfortable. There was a LOT of rejection floating around the chapel, even as we tried to reset ourselves back into a more reverential posture and state of mind. We left for a common meal in the school's refectory  and still the tension was there, palpable. Terry absorbed a lot of criticism for staging a "theatrical" sermon...but to this day I have seldom seen a preaching that more effectively embodied, and provoked from its hearers, connection to the people who lived out the Gospel story being spoken to  in that moment.

Rejection, acceptance and the curses of the labels of "success" and "failure" dog us all, and I give God praise that a wild-eyed seminarian had the courage to name that struggle by actually having us live it out that day in the seminary chapel. It reminds me, even until today, that the challenge a preacher faces is one that means embracing rejection and acceptance as the real fruit of being willing to risk speaking and proclaiming honest truth with each sermon.

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