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A More Excellent Way

Epiphany 4C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

They were filled with rage and drove him out of town so that they might hurl him off the cliff (Luke 4:28-29).

What made the hometown hero a hated villain? What made old friends and family switch from adulation to hate in the span of a few minutes or hours?  Within the space of seven verses, their curiosity turned to contempt. Delight gave way to violence.  How does Jesus go from being the admired insider to the ultimate outsider?

Everything goes wrong when Jesus says, “I am not yours. I don’t belong to you. I am not yours to claim or contain. I don’t play for your team.

Jesus does this by recounting God’s long history of prioritizing the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger, even our enemies.  The Spirit of God plays among edge-people called to bear witness in edge-places, and occasionally, in the temple. Elijah was sent to care for the widow at Zarephath, Jesus reminds them. He wasn’t sent to the widows of Israel. Elisha was instructed to heal Naaman the Syrian, not the numerous lepers in Israel. In other words, God has always been in the business of working on the margins. Of crossing borders. Of doing new and exciting things in remote and unlikely places. Far from home. Far from the familiar and the comfortable. Far from the centers of power and piety. (Debie Thomas)

We good Lutherans ask, ‘what does this mean? Is it possible that if the Jesus we worship never offends us, it’s not really Jesus we worship?  When was the last time Jesus made you that angry—let alone filled you with rage?

We, the Church, are the modern-day equivalent of Jesus’s ancient townspeople. We’re the ones who think we know Jesus best. We’re the ones most in danger of domesticating him. We’re the ones most likely to miss him when he shows up in faces we don’t recognize or revere. What will it take to follow him into new and uncomfortable territory? To see him where we least desire to look? How can we be sure our religion gives life? Our worship makes disciples?

The answer? You all know the answer. The answer, of course, is love.  Our second reading today from, 1 Corinthians 13, is Paul’s great anthem to love. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” ( verse 1)  Love is the yardstick to measure the true depth of our faith.  Love is the plumb bob that instantly reveals when our religion is out of whack.  Love is the color swatch from the paint store.  Whatever has the tinge of love in it bears truth and the gospel. If your religion doesn’t match its time to change your heart and renew your mind.  Following the path of love will show us a more excellent way.

Recently, a colleague of mine, another ELCA pastor, recalled the story of being judged in her own very religious family—for years.  They would not recognize her ordination. In fact, they were pretty sure she was going to hell despite the fact she has given her life to serving the Church.  Through teenage years and into young adulthood, their religious differences made holidays and family events increasingly tense. Arguments, especially with her mother, she said, became sharp, heated, and hurtful. Visiting home was painful and infrequent.  Then something changed thanks be to God.  Without telling her, her mom began counseling with her pastor.  At some point, he had said, ‘So it looks like you have a choice. You can be right, or you can have your daughter.”  She chose rightly.  She chose her daughter. My friend reports that it’s still not always easy, but she rejoices that her family is being restored. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love does not insist on its own way, but rejoices in the truth.’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Personally, I pray for the day saying that someone is ‘very religious’ means they are wise, patient, listening, compassionate rather than judging or intolerant.

Love was in the news this past week. The stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt got into a war of words with Michael Beatty a Twitter troll who had targeted him online with slurs, lies, and threats of violence for Oswalt’s criticism of President Donald Trump. It was all pretty typical and dreadful stuff.  Then, something changed thanks be to God.  Oswalt discovered Beatty struggled with poor health.  So he invited followers to contribute to a GoFundMe page to for Beatty and kicked things off with a $2,000 donation of his own. Beatty’s original fundraising goal was $5,000, but thanks to Oswalt, he’s now topped more than $47,000 in donations.

Beatty, a Vietnam vet, spent eight days in a coma in December due to complications from diabetes and had only raised about $600 toward his expenses before Oswalt stepped in. “I would never have [imagined this] based on what I tweeted to him,” Beatty said in an interview with the Washington Post. “If anything, I expected a scathing retort or just to be ignored, but that’s not what happened.”  Beatty said he is reevaluating friendships and productive dialogue regardless of political affiliation. ‘Oswalt is a good man and I hope that I can meet him one day to cement a relationship.’‘Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing.’ If our politics are not driven by love, it’s time to change our politics.

Jesus’ enraging message in Nazareth invites us to consider that God loves enemies because God has loved us. We friends of Jesus come to realize that we have behaved as enemies and are in need of the same grace as those we demonize. Again, love is the light that illumines this path of self-discovery, repentance, and renewal.

One more love story. In the 1970s, before he was assassinated, Harvey Milk, the mayor of San Francisco appealed to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends, and co-workers so the straight world might stop demonizing an abstract idea. So many people braved their fears and just said, “This is who I am,” because of the prescience of Harvey Milk’s vision, it became harder and harder to pretend that gay people are completely apart from “us.”

Beware when society perpetuates a dualistic worldview of who is like us and who isn’t. Not only does seeing the world in these terms keep us at arm’s length from other people, and it places our own sense of who we are in a box. Harvey Milk’s vision and the courage of countless queer people changed our families, our country, and our church—all through the power of love.

“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. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:11-13)

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