Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why we Sometimes Want to Throw God off a Cliff - A Homily for Proper 4, Year C, 2013

Homily for Proper 4, Year C, 2013
Sunday, Feb 2nd, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text:  Luke 4:21-30

Most of us believe we know what is best for us.  After all, who knows my needs better than me?  Who knows your needs better than you?  It seems to me that we have elevated this understanding of need-fulfilment to doctrine.  Students tell teachers what they need, patients tell doctors what they need, children tell parents what they need – education, health care, and parenting all revolve around the stated (or unstated) needs of the individual.  Now, self-awareness is not a bad thing, indeed, it is a very good thing.  In particular, when we run up against large institutions and structures that inevitably forget about the needs of individuals, self-advocacy is very, very important. However, there is a difference between self-awareness, and selfish-centredness.  Self-awareness asks a multiplicity of questions, such as: what do I need to grow, to become a better, healthier, more educated person? Self-awareness considers the complicated web of relationships of which we are all a part and how we can function not only as individuals but as individuals in relationship with each other. Self-awareness asks the question “who am I in the world.”  Conversely, self-centredness asks one simple question, “what can the world do for me?” and pursues one single-minded goal: finding out how to make this happen.  We are at our best when we are self-aware beings seeking the common good of other self-aware beings, living in a self-aware society. Mutual self-awareness builds up the common good; selfish-centredness tears it down and destroys it.

When Jesus preached in his home-town, and when it became clear that that the messianic mantle had fallen upon him, people had certain expectations.  Messiahship had kingly connotations.  The messiah was a descendent of David, and it was prophesied that he would rule over Israel.  Now, we know from hindsight that Jesus was a very different kind of messiah than what had been expected.  However, in those days, they expected a king who would rescue the people and smite their enemies.  This is why they expected his so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem to be somewhat more triumphal than how it actually turned out.  And this is why even his disciples argued amongst themselves who was the greatest, and who would sit at his right hand in his kingdom. If any one of us had a person of great power or influence in our family or amongst our friends, it would only be natural to sidle up every now and again, ask for a favour, seek a point of privilege, maybe even a lucrative appointment or placement of some sort.

When Jesus preached in his home-town, and it became clear that the messianic mantle had fallen upon him, people had great expectations.  They had heard that he was gaining a following throughout the Galilee, that he was getting famous, that he was working great wonders! “Was this not Joseph’s son?” they murmured after they heard him preach for the first time?  Others might have been saying, “Just think, I knew him when…!”  One might think that Jesus would have ridden on his new-found popularity at home; after all, they were amazed at his preaching.  You might have thought that he would have used the home-town advantage a little more constructively.  Yet, instead, Jesus picked a fight with them.  He chastised them.  He put words in their mouths:  “Doubtless you will say ‘Doctor cure yourself!’” and “’Do here in your hometown the miracles we heard you did in Capernaum!’”   Well, they weren’t actually saying those things, at least not at that moment.  Jesus was cutting them off at the pass.  He knew the time would come when the requests for favours would start rolling in, when he would have to disappoint them, when he couldn’t be the sort of messiah they thought they were getting.  In an attempt to explain why they would be disappointed, he told them a couple of stories, one about Elijah who offered food during a famine to the widow of Zarephath and her son, and one about Elisha who cleansed but one leper amongst many, Naaman. These two stories made them so angry that they rode Jesus out of town and attempted to throw him off a cliff! What was the point of these two stories?  What was it about those stories that made the people closest to Jesus so angry at him?

 Jesus’ purpose in re-telling these well-known tales was two-fold.  First, not everybody gets what they want. Some people will be disappointed.  These two old-time prophets reached out to particular individuals who had particular needs, but the needs of others seem to have been ignored.  Secondly, you may not always like who gets the help, especially when it is not you!  Both the widow and Naaman were gentiles. These stories were stories of God reaching out to those considered to be on the outside, those not considered members of the family, those who may not seem to be deserving of God’s grace.

 So what is Jesus trying to say to his family and friends in his home-town?  Simply this, you may be impressed with me now because you think you know what I am about and you are imagining all that I can do for you. You are thinking, “Do for us what you are doing for them!” But what if that is not what I am here for?  What if it’s not all about you? What happens when I have to disappoint you?  What happens when you realize that you are not the only ones God is reaching out to? 

The expectations that the people in Nazareth had for Jesus were narrow, self-centred and to the exclusion of others.  God’s vision is broad, community-focused and inclusive.  When the people heard the truth, they couldn’t take it and they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff.

We all have needs.  We are all in need of love, of forgiveness and healing. But that’s the point –
ALL of us need God, not just some of us, not just me, not just you.  “Come unto me ALL who are weary and carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says.  St. John writes that Jesus the righteous is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but for the sins of the WHOLE world.  Yes, my needs are important, and God cares about me, but if I am created in the image of God, and if through his grace I am to be conformed to his likeness, then my focus will shift away from me, the beloved of God, to recognize and serve you, the beloved of God. When I become self-aware that my identity is Christ, not in me alone, then I find my true self in the service of him, and those he loves.  Selfishness gives way to self-awareness, selfishness gives way to generosity, selfishness gives way to perfect love.  And after all, love is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its way.

We think we know what we need, and we may have some sense of it, but I am grateful that at times, my parents had a greater sense of what I needed than I did.  I am grateful that my teachers were trained to not only meet my educational needs (as I might have narrowly envisioned those needs) but to shape me for citizenship and community.  I am grateful that when I don’t know what’s wrong with me that my doctor has the training to know what might help, and the wisdom to offer proper treatment.  We have a great physician who knows our needs even before we do and even before we ask.  What is more, he knows our true needs, and yes, he can offer challenging words, words that may even make us wish to throw him from a cliff.  Yet, if we accept his wisdom, if we embrace his challenging love, if we let him work away on the dark places of our souls, we shall find that we are transformed and healed.  We shall find that what we thought we needed was not what we needed at all.  We shall find ourselves opened to new possibilities, but even more wonderfully, we shall see him working that same grace not only in ourselves but in our community and the world of which we are part.

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