FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
January 31, 2015
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Jeremiah 1:4-5;17-19 Psalm 71:1-6;15-17
I Corinthians 13:4-13 Luke 4:21-30
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Last week, we heard Jesus announcing his mission statement, proclaiming that God anointed Him to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. Like Jeremiah the prophet in the first reading, God called Jesus to carry out a mission. This week, we hear about how the people who heard Him reacted. The reaction, however, was quite unfavorable: they wanted to kill Jesus, just like the crowds several centuries earlier wanted to kill Jeremiah. As to both Jesus and Jeremiah, the crowd did not accept the mission of Jesus, nor did they wish to heed his words, the same way crowds treated Jeremiah.
Vocal upstarts wanting to change the status quo, upset the applecart, or advocate anynew program that disadvantages established interests, will always be met with hostility. That is part of the human condition. People find change threatening. Change, or even the possibility of it, induces fear. Jesus challenged the prevailing domination system, just like contemporary politicians who advocate redistributing wealth, pardoning those incarcerated, enlightening the disenfranchised about their rights, and giving power to those on the societal margins. Such ideas were not popular in the times of Jeremiah and Jesus, and are not popular now. All one do is read the newspaper, watch television, or surf the Internet to see how established interests react to those who, like Jesus, are disruptors.
Disruptive people are never popular, particularly in churches, because people look to religion to provide security. We want church to stay the same, to look and feel as it looked and felt when we were children. Church feels good to us when we allow it to wrap around us like a comfortable homemade quilt, assuring us that God is in heaven, and everything is right with the world.
But the first Christians were, like Jesus, disruptive to the Jewish establishment and to the Roman empire. Until rescued by Constantine in the early Fourth Century, they were met with incarceration, torture, and execution, described in some detail in the Acts of the Apostles.
Jesus, as the Word of God incarnate, was intended by God to be a disruptiveforce, not one who affirms prevailing social, political and economic structures. Yet, conservative Christians often use Jesus in that manner to support the very things Jesus condemned. They are on the front lines promoting the right to discriminate against racial, ethnic and sexual minorities, shredding the social safety net, and opposing universal health care as a right paid for by the greater community rather than an individual responsibility. What this shows is that the kind of people who wanted to stone Jesus to death when he declared his mission statement that day in the synagogue are still with us today.
The synagogue congregants were surprised, first of all, that Jesus, ostensibly the son of Joseph, the carpenter, did not follow in Joseph’s footsteps in the same trade as would be expected. That alone branded Jesus as outside the mainstream. Instead of becoming a carpenter, Jesus proclaimed Himself to be a prophet. Prophets, however, are never popular, particularly in their own hometown, because they know where all the bodies are buried, and tell everyone about it. Being a prophet is not predicting the future, but calling out evil. Just like a baseball umpire, they call what they see. By doing that, prophets embarrass those in power. Now I know why I was not popular in my hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, particularly in my high school, where I made a point of openly identifying, and castigating, the social cliques of supercilious snobs who rejected uncool nerds like me. Although the socially-prominent students were totally devoid of intellectual and spiritual depth, they ran all the school activities. What characterized these kids from the wealthy areas of the town was a strong sense of entitlement, the same way the Jews in the days of Jesus thought of themselves. They were convinced they were God’s chosen people. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus reminded them that God considered other people important, too.
Let give you a bit of background so you know who these folks were. Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who is best known for predicting a drought which would only end when people recognized Yaweh as the true God instead of the false God Baal. We here in the Southern Desert can certainly relate to a lack of rainfall, but in ancient times, there were no reservoirs or irrigation systems; hence, a lack of rain caused the food supply to fail. God sent Elijah to a widow, who, as a result of the drought, had been left with only a small amount of grain and oil and was expecting to die. Somehow, Elijah was able to make the grain and oil last to make bread until rain came in response to Elijah’s prayers to Yaweh. This widow, however, was not Jewish. She lived in Zarephath, on the Mediterranean shore in Phoenicia, north and west of Jerusalem, populated by polytheistic pagans outside the land area occupied by the Jewish tribes. When Elijah saved her son from death, she started to trust Yaweh, the God that Elijah worshipped. Likewise, Naaman was not a Jew, but a Syrian military commander. He was afflicted with leprosy. Elisha, the prophet who took over Elijah’s ministry after Elijah went on a whirlwind to Heaven, told Naaman to wash himself in the Jordan River to cure himself of the leprosy, which he did. As noted by Jesus in today’s Gospel, there were many Jewish widows and many Jewish lepers, but Elijah and Elisha respectively performed miracles for non-Jews. Jesus told these stories to show that being part of the so-called chosen people was not necessary to be a recipient of God’s grace and love.
When these stories were heard by a synagogue congregation with a sense of entitlement to God’s blessings, it is not hard to see why they got angry. Jesus had stripped them of their comfortable quilt and threatened their comfort zone. Good news for the poor and liberty to the oppressed would require that the boundaries around the chosen people be demolished. They would have to extend hospitality to strangers, tax collectors, and sinners. They would no longer feel set apart from the rest of the world as something special entitled to a better life than anyone else.
What this shows is that an affiliation of people with a strong, almost narcissistic, sense of entitlement because they happen to be part of a particular race, ethnicity, religion or tribe is not a new situation. We see that today as “American Exceptionalism”. These folks believe that God uniquely created the United States of America to be the greatest country in the world, entitled by its military might and its concentrated wealth to dominate all other nations. The conservatives believe that what makes America great is a political and economic system that favors wealthy people defended by people carrying guns. They promote property rights, free market capitalism, and personal, rather than communal, responsibility for one’s survival. Despite the fact that all of that stuff flies in the face of what Jesus taught in the Gospels and the ways of the earliest Christians memorialized in the Acts of the Apostles, these people more often than not call themselves Christians and practice Christian Exceptionalism. They consider Christians to be somehow “better” than people who are not. They think that Christians are, like the Jews of ancient times, God’s chosen people. This is similar to the notion promoted in the old days by the Roman Church out of the First Vatican Council and Pope Pius the Ninth that those who were not part of the Roman Church would burn in Hell at the end of their lives. The inaccurate basis for this outright bigotry can be seen in the fact that God has blessed many people not part of the Roman Church with the good things of life, and that those at the front of human progress are of many different faith traditions.
The very notion of one nation, or one religion, considering itself as “chosen” flies in the face of what the essence of God really is. Sacred scripture tells us that God loves everyone equally. God shows no favoritism in God’s dealings with humanity. We are all equal in God’s sight. As recognized by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”These thoughts are echoed by Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, when he says, “There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”The last sentence is the key: in referring to those “apart from the law,” Saint Paul was referring to non-Jews, and in identifying “those who have sinned under the law,” he was referring to Jews. The sending of God’s grace and love to allof humanity was exactly the point Jesus was making in relating to these two Old Testament stories to the synagogue congregations. That is true even today, and true right here in Palm Springs. In our city, we have good people and evil people, so when God sends rain from the sky, it falls on both. But more important is that God loves all of us equally and universally. God’s love is universal to all of humanity because God out of love created every single human person in God’s image. Today’s Second reading expounds in detail about what love is. It is more poem than prose. Such is the nature of love.
Love, as described by Saint Paul, is not the kind of love we see in the movies. Romantic love is but one kind of love. Nor is Saint Paul talking about love the way we do when we say we love baseball or oatmeal. What Saint Paul has in mind goes way beyond either of those examples. He was referring to something more powerful. To give you an analogy, consider a light bulb and sunlight. Both are light sources, but the sun is infinitely more powerful than the light bulb. For Christians, love is interior, spiritual and divine. God’s love is infinitely more powerful than any love we might experience on a human level, but it is at the same time a paradigm, or pattern, of the behavior necessary for Christian living. We can be very good at the tasks of making church and the skills for daily living in the secular world, but if we do all of those things without love, our lives will be empty of God and totally devoid of any spiritual meaning.
The Church at Corinth, to whom Saint Paul addressed his Epistle, was rich in gifts, but characterized by substantial quarrels and divisions. Gifts meant to strengthen the church have often produced disagreements when love is missing. Gifts that take into account only the desires of particular individuals rather than the community as a whole is not a loving gift because it is not intended to build up the community. Why? Love is the one essential gift that characterizes a Christian community in contrast to a secular organization. Love is what builds up a church. What attracts people to, and keeps them in, a Church is the amount and kind of love the community exudes. When people are looking for a church, their souls are lonely. They are looking for love more than anything else. Love is the criteria by which all church practices should be measured. Churches, however, often focus on doctrines and rules. Such an orientation leads to a perverted concept of Christianity. As First Peter tells us, “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.”Christian love is an attitude of the soul that measures all relationships, activities, and events. Prophecy, knowledge, eloquence, almsgiving, and even martyrdom, are meaningless without love. In all we do as a church, we must not forget that the church is called to be a community that practices love. When we consider whether we should do, or not do something, either as a church, or as an individual, the criteria must be, “is what we are doing something that is loving?”
What is not loving is any kind of exceptionalism, which is, by nature, antithetical to loving others. Telling another person or group, “I’m better than you are” because I am an American or because I am a Christian, or because I am white, or because I am heterosexual, or because I am a man, is in effect saying, “I love myself more than I do you because of who am and what you are not.” That, my friends, is a sin, because Jesus explicitly commanded us to love others as much we love ourselves. For Jesus, loving others is not just a gentle suggestion. It is a command. As you may recall from John’s gospel, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, to love one another as I have loved you. By this people will know you are my disciples.” So ask yourself: do you want to be known as a disciple of Jesus? I do. When we love others intensely and deeply, nothing else matters. AMEN.