The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Epiphany 4c (2016)
Here follows a true confession of a preacher: I want you to like this sermon. If you could click the “like” button and give me a thumbs up, it would make me feel all warm and fuzzy. I want the 8:00 Early Christians to like it, I want the newcomers to like it, I want our assisting clergy to like it, I want the choir to like it, I want the little kids to like it (oh wait, they’re in children’s chapel) – I want the college professors and Anglo-catholics and the I’m-only-here-because-my-wife-drug-me-here’s to like it. I want everyone to like it. Our desire to be liked can be either an asset or liability (depending how you look at it, depending who you’re trying to appease) and us clergy types tend to be notorious people pleasers.
But then I’m faced with this problem – what if I want to preach like Jesus?
In truth, I hope to be able to pull something off like the first half of Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth; the part where it is said “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
If only Jesus had ended it there. He could have stood at the door of the synagogue shaking hands and receive his well deserved accolades. Quit while you’re ahead, if you know what I mean.
If only Jesus would coddle and comfort us, if only he would reassure us that we are special and therefore don’t have to change a thing about our sometimes self-interested ways of living. If only he’d do what we want him to do, say what we want him to say, act like we want him to act – we wouldn’t have to toss him aside or throw him off a cliff or crucify him.
But Jesus is not a people pleaser, is he? Rather, Jesus is a fierce lover of souls who takes risks to call us deeper beyond our self-constructed solitude, into relationship with one another, into relationship with him.
I cannot hear the story of Jesus getting run out of town and nearly thrown off a cliff without thinking of the silent protest of my fanatical friend Jeff. To say that Jeff was merely a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide would be like saying Nick Saban is an mediocre coach – an understatement of epic proportions. He wasn’t even really a fanatic – he was much more logical and disciplined in his devotion, Jeff was more of a disciple of Alabama football.
Crimson ran through his veins and his dedication to his team was second to none. Not only did Jeff know the lore of the great Paul “Bear” Bryant, he also knew the stats and hometown of the third string kicker. He never missed a game either on TV or the radio. In a good year Jeff and his father would get to attend a game or two down in Tuscaloosa. His most cherished memories from childhood occurred in Alabama’s sacred cathedral – Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Several years ago, as a young-adult, Jeff had been going through a rough patch in his life. He was reintegrating into civilian life after a difficult deployment over seas. His dad decided to cheer him up by securing two tickets for the game one crisp fall afternoon.
Jeff was even wearing his lucky Alabama hat that he’d worn religiously every game day since he was a kid, and they climbed the stairs to the nosebleeds, sitting on the third row from the top. Sure they weren’t great seats, but at least they were there, in person. The buzz and excitement of the stadium was beginning to make Jeff feel a little better and he looked over at his dad and smiled. It was the first time his dad had seen him smile in over a year. It was just like old times.
It was just like old times, that is, until everyone stood for the National Anthem. Paralyzed by a flood of anxiety and anger, Jeff froze in his seat, and could not bring himself to stand, he could not muster enough patriotism to remove his lucky hat. And so, he sheepishly studied his shoes, desperately looking for a distraction.
As the anthem continued, a vigilant spectator one aisle back noticed Jeff’s silent protest. The rough voice demanded in a slurred Southern drawl – “Boy, take off your hat, stand up and show some respect!” Jeff put his elbows on his knees and pretended to check his text messages.
But the drunken spectator persisted – “You’d best take that hat off and show some respect!” The height of the stands added to his sense of vertigo. And before he knew what was happening, his hat was ripped off and flung over the side of the stadium as the voice barked – “You WILL show some respect.”
Jeff later shared that he felt like he was going to be the next thing thrown over the side of the stadium this man was so angry. Visibly distressed, Jeff bolted down the stairs and out of the stadium to listen to the game from the safety of his car.
The father followed after his startled son, but not before turning to the man who had ripped his off his son’s hat and said to him: “I’m sorry if my son offended you. He just returned last month from Afghanistan and is recovering from a concussion – two of his friends in his unit were killed in that explosion – he’s still a bit confused and angry.”
And he passed through the midst of them, and went on his way.
You know, I’ve often wondered how Jesus averted being thrown from the cliff. I suppose if you’re the son of God and can walk on water, passing through the midst of an angry mob is no big deal, but it leaves me wondering.
Jesus himself said he couldn’t do any miracles there because of their unbelief. So maybe it wasn’t a miracle that helped him avert disaster. Perhaps it something he said? Did he push them to take a long hard look at themselves – did they get to the cliff’s edge only to realize the folly of their actions?
What was it, after all, that made them so angry in the first place?
Jesus had been doing so well – he read powerfully and persuasively from the book of Isaiah, and proclaimed that the year of the Lord’s favor was being fulfilled in their midst. What a wonderful message! – now say “Amen” and sit down.
But he doesn’t stop there, does he? He goes on to share a story that provokes them out of their self constructed comfort zones; two stories from the Hebrew scriptures about how God’s favor was lavished not on the prestigious and privileged, but on two outsiders beyond the fringe. Naaman the Syrian and the Widow at Zar-e-fath in Sidon were not part of the chosen people, they were Gentiles. They were not insiders, they were outsiders. They harbored no illusions that they deserved God’s favor, and thus, were able to receive God’s grace wholly as a gift, just as it was intended to be received.
Jesus provokes his hometown congregation – taunting them almost – saying, “Doubtless you’ll quote me this proverb, ‘Doctor, heal thyself!’” These hometown folks want their hometown hero to show them some preference, “do for us what you’ve done for so many others Jesus!”
What Jesus is saying here is in effect, “Look good folks of Nazareth – Miracles do not produce faith, rather faith produces miracles. If you’ve come here for miracles and self-congratulations, you’ve come here for the wrong reasons.”
You see, the primary purpose of the gospel is not to make us feel better about ourselves. The gospel is not some self-help method that will increase the size of your soul in 30 days or your money back. This concept of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps actually runs quite counter to the good news of Jesus Christ. The message of Jesus does not pronounce generic blanket endorsement of our own preferences and opinions. In spite of all our best efforts to neuter Jesus into something fashionable and nice, the fact remains – sometimes Jesus makes us uncomfortable, sometimes Jesus calls us beyond our routines and ruts and out into a new place that is scary and enthralling and fresh and full of possibility and growth.
I will readily admit that this is not a question I like to have to ask myself, and it may make you uncomfortable as well. However, if we are to be faithful to the call of Jesus we must, from time to time, ask ourselves the question: “Am I willing to go out of my comfort zone to follow Jesus?”
If we are not willing to be made uncomfortable, we are not willing to follow Jesus, and we are not willing to grow. If we come to this, the Lord’s table, for solace only and not for strength, we walk away incomplete.
The gospel lesson today teaches us that Jesus cannot so easily be tossed aside. He will continue on moving through our midst, poking and prodding us towards faith. But the call remains to follow Jesus beyond our discomfort, beyond our fears into a place of deep trust.
And Jesus does all of this but for the sake of love. Not the kind of love procured by valentine cards and chocolates, but the tough love found only in commitment and community – the kind of love written about so eloquently by the Apostle Paul – Love is patient; love is kind; 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, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
The love which Jesus embodies will not be so easily cast aside – the love of Christ is patient, yet persistent, loving us into the people we have yet been created to be. Love doesn’t give up, and God will not give up on you.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide,” says the Apostle Paul, “and the greatest of these is love.”
So maybe we can forget about being liked; for wouldn’t you much rather be loved?