Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Epiphany 4 C - Jan 31, 2016

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
Epiphany 4 - Sunday, January 24, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

No one is prophet in his own land
Television dramas with plots that span weeks often begin with some sort of flash back or recap – Perhaps an announcer solemnly intones “Last week on Lost in Space...” for example. And this week’s reading from Luke needs to use that device... 

Otherwise we're starting in the middle of something. Jesus reads from Isaiah and says – today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing... except we didn't hear what he read… unless your memory of last week is particularly keen. 

So... last week, in the Gospel according to Luke... Jesus read from the Prophet Isaiah...  From the 61st chapter: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Now here is an interesting thing... Luke tells us that Jesus is reading from the scroll of the book. But for some reason Jesus takes liberties with Isaiah... and I suppose if anyone has that right, it's Jesus... Because of translations both then and now it is a bit murky. But there is no doubt that Jesus has left some things out and put some things in... Isaiah calls for binding up the broken hearted and a day of vengeance for our God. Jesus strikes those, but brings sight to the blind, unlike Isaiah.

These are, on the surface, minor changes, but they shift the meaning of what Isaiah said. God, as known in the Hebrew Scriptures, is often a god of vengeance. But, with the incarnation of God in the man Jesus, we know God in a different way. We know a God of forgiveness, of compassion, and of love. Jesus is not mis-quoting Isaiah. He is updating him.

So that is the thing that leads to this week’s reading... Jesus reads, sort of, from Isaiah, and then tells his listeners that today they have heard this scripture fulfilled. 

OK - so we're not quite ready for this week’s reading... because there is one more "Previously in the Gospel according to Luke" reminder. Luke, at the start of last week’s reading, describes Jesus as filled with the power of the Spirit. It is Luke's own version of the "Previously in the Gospel according to me" device. 

Jesus is filled with the Spirit at the time of his baptism. It is an important detail. The reading from Isaiah begins with "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..." and for Jesus the Spirit is upon him because in baptism he is anointed. It is not clear if those gathered around Jesus at the moment would have understood the link, but Luke's audience surely would have. 

Jesus is anointed in baptism with the Spirit – just as Isaiah is anointed in the Spirit.

Now on to this week’s reading... 

For some reason I am reminded of a short passage in a fiction book called "Dreams of Sleep" by Josephine Humphries. Life, for the lead character, is more or less falling apart. In a depressed moment she approaches her refrigerator and becomes fixated on the vegetable drawer. It is filled with vegetables she bought in previous weeks with the intention of eating, but there they sit – no longer edible. And she thinks to herself how easily things slip from ripe to rotten... 

Here is Jesus talking to the hometown crowd. They are loving him. All eyes are upon him. Words like "approval" and "astonished" describe the crowd. And then how easily things slip from ripe to rotten... Suddenly words like "enraged" appear. They want to kill him. All this within a few sentences. How can this be?

Well – Jesus has a way of saying things folks don’t want to hear. Jesus has gained a reputation as a healer and the crowd wants Jesus to cure everyone... to fix everything... to be the Messiah that they are longing for. And more than that, they want to share in Jesus’ glory. They know him… they grew up with him… they want to cash in. 

But Jesus is not that messiah. Jesus doesn’t let them down gently. He shatters the illusion – a dangerous thing, but necessary for spiritual growth as much then as now.

There were lots of widows at the time of Elijah in Israel, Jesus reminds them, but Elijah wasn't sent to any of them, but rather to a widow in Sidon... And there were lots of diseased people in Israel at the time of Elisha, but they are all left to suffer while Naaman the Syrian is cured. In case you missed it – both these people are gentiles... heathens... not God's chosen people. And yet they were chosen over the chosen people. How easily things slip from ripe to rotten.

Shattering illusion is painful. When our illusions are shattered we often focus our pain by directing it as anger at the one who has done the shattering. In the arena of our blood sport called politics, there is something approaching lust for the trashing of political leaders. We build them up beyond reason and then watch with prurient interest as they fall back to earth. But they didn’t do anything. They simply are who they are. Our illusion of who we want them to be is the issue.

Jesus is not illusion. Jesus has no part in the illusion. The illusions belong to the crowd, to us. And these illusions have to be shattered because they are not real. And more critically, the illusions stand in the way of knowing the real Jesus. Could Jesus have been more gentle in the disillusioning? I don’t think so. Illusions are powerful and beguiling. A gentle nudge away from illusion is not likely to break the spell of illusion. Jesus rips the band aid, as it were…

Our illusions need to be shattered. Otherwise we cannot be in a meaningful and constructive relationship. Not with Jesus. Not with our spouse. Not with our community. Nothing real can be built on a foundation of illusion. 

Nonetheless it hurts when our illusions are punctured. When it happens we get angry and it seems natural to focus that anger on the object of our illusion… Just exactly as the crowd does to Jesus. Look how far they go. They could simply have gotten up and walked away. But instead they more or less try to herd Jesus over a cliff. Rather than have their illusions destroyed, they seek to destroy the object of their illusions. 

This protects the illusions. If Jesus won’t play along, we can dispose of him and find a new focus for illusion. That way we don’t have to be disillusioned. That way we don’t have to change, to be responsible, to grow… Likewise these days, when Candidate X shatters my illusions, I blame him or her… but the illusions are mind and I need them shattered. 

In this passage from Luke, Jesus puts two big agendas in front of us. First, he has come to release captives – to release us… to restore sight to the blind – to us… to bring good news to the poor – to us… and to declare God’s favor. Second, we are going to have to be in relationship with Jesus, not as powerless dependents waiting to be rescued. That is illusion. But as children of God… as people of God… with Jesus as our brother.

We have to be willing to see. We have to be willing to give up being oppressed and to give up oppressing. We have to be good news to the poor. We have to let go of the illusion that Jesus is some great external power. Jesus is in us. We are the body. 

It is a comfortable illusion that if we are devoted enough, prayerful enough, faithful enough, that God will rescue and protect us and make everything nice. The truth is that if we are devoted and prayerful and faithful, God will walk with us into pain, sorrow, and hardship – for these are in great abundance in our world. In baptism Jesus is anointed – and in baptism we are also anointed. 

Our greatest joy is to bring good news, to bring the love of God to those who need it most.

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