Experiences over the years of growing from childhood to adulthood cause us to face some unpleasant facts. For example, the birth of a baby brother or sister teaches us that we’re not the center of the world. The bruises and scrapes of the playground and sports field teach us the cost of belonging to a community, and the deaths of a grandparent and beloved cats and dogs teach us that we live in a world of impermanence and there will be times of suffering.
If we fail to learn these lessons, and many others we could name, we do not become adults who live maturely in the world and peacefully with other people. They’re tough lessons and many fail to learn them. They continue into adulthood and even into their senior years still operating with emotional immaturity. The life of faith is the same. We have to grow up into mature Christians—to become adult children of God. But so often it seems as if we prefer not to do so, content with a level of faith fit for children, but certainly not for mature disciples of Jesus.
Today’s gospel passage provides an important example of this very issue. Here we see the good religious people of Nazareth, proud of their local boy who made good. He spoke so well in the temple, and he gave them that reassuring “old time religion” about God’s favor for their ancestors in exile. And no doubt, they were confident that their own well being and chosen status remained at the center of God’s purposes.
The release for captives and liberation for the oppressed of which Jesus spoke most likely reminded them of their ancestors’ delivery from the Egyptians, and now of their own travail under Roman occupation. Not to mention the promise they craved for themselves—victory, vindication, and sadly vengeance. Because of course, immature faith, childish faith, assumes a god who always does what we want, ensuring that we’ll always come out on top simply because we’re God’s children. We want God to make sure we’ll be the winners.
But, what if the blind and the poor and the captives and the outcasts that Jesus spoke about were best understood not as a symbol of Jesus’ hearers’ own condition, but as real people, real social outcasts, whom THEY had pushed to the margins of their society? What if Jesus’ hearers were the oppressors rather than the oppressed?
“You’re keen enough to see signs and reap the benefits of God’s favor,” Jesus tells them. “But remember how the prophets failed with you people in the past; remember how Elijah and Elisha were sent to GENTILE foreigners and rescued them, with no benefits whatsoever to Israel on those occasions. Perhaps God’s favor isn’t only for you. Perhaps your version of religion isn’t up to speed with what God is doing in the world.”
Well, lo and behold, Jesus’ “supporters” suddenly turn nasty and want to lynch him. They so identify religion with their own priorities that God’s favor for anyone THEY do not favor is inconceivable. Jesus’ message is just not what they came to temple to hear. Who does he think he is? We can almost hear the cry of a later crowd: “Away with him, crucify him”—just as Jesus’ resurrection, just as God’s decisive triumph over human folly, is anticipated in today’s lovely conclusion from Luke: “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
We’ve all seen immature, self-obsessed religion at work, and no doubt, at times we’ve provided the venue for others to see it as well. You know what I mean—I’m faithful; God is mine, which translates
into “God is on my side, whatever side that is.” Or as Anne Lamott wrote (which I shared with you in the past), “You can tell that you have recreated God in your own image when you find that God hates all the same people you do.”
Pious Anglicans suddenly become rabid when some hapless rector moves a prayer desk given in memory of someone’s Aunty Maud. More seriously, people give up the Church over an unfounded rumor, or exhibit passive (or perhaps not so passive) aggressive behaviors because they can’t get their own way. Those for whom Anglicanism is the religious expression of a polite, established sensibility of yesteryear first and foremost cannot by definition disturb any part of the status quo.
Some want to keep God in the comfortable box of their own understanding, and so we have liberals against conservatives, and conservatives against liberals, political party affiliation more important than our relationship to God and each other, and so on. Political party devotion has become a higher priority than our relationship to God and each other.
More seriously still, religion serves to cement ancient hatreds: Orthodox Serb against Roman Catholic Croat, Protestant against Roman Catholic Irish, not to mention Christian against Jew, or Christian against Muslim, or Jew against Muslim—the list is endless. And so, the immature religious dynamics of many people of faith and communities show us in miniature the global problems of separation, violence, exclusion, and ethnic cleansing—ALL IN THE NAME OF GOD!
I remember a flight I was on to a conference. A young woman was sitting near me and she kept looking at me (I was wearing my collar.) Finally she asked me, “Are you a lady minister.” My whacky sense of humor wanted to say, “No, I’m a guy in drag.” Anyway, I told her yes. Then she said to me, “I used to be religious but not anymore. I think most of the wars in the world are started by religion. I could tell she was waiting for a good debate, but instead is answered her, “You’re right.” Then we had a good conversation.
God’s answer is to send prophets who must pluck up and pull down, in the realm of faith, as well as build and plant, as we read in Jeremiah this morning. Jesus was the greatest of the prophets, and his threatening call to maturity was met by rejection from the pitiless and the unjust, as today’s Psalm (if we had read a little further) tells us will be history’s reward for all the so called ”righteous.”
Today’s gospel reminds us that these pitiless and unjust are very close to home—the enemy isn’t over there somewhere, like the foreigners Jesus names in today’s gospel; rather the enemy is safely hidden away IN HERE, IN OUR CHURCHES, IN OUR OWN HEARTS. We prefer comfort to challenge in our religion, we prefer reassurance to soul searching, we think healing will solve our problems and needs, when confession and transformation might be what is needed.. How we baby ourselves and yet ruthlessly judge others! Just like the people in Nazareth—they judged Jesus the Christ of God.
Instead of seeking things for ourselves from God—power and knowledge and faith to do great things OUR way—instead, God would have us seek love, love to see and hear the other, love to patiently enter into the experience of the other and let compassion grow, love to squelch self-assertive yearning for vindication or vengeance, and love to really bear with the other. And, so to hope and dream of a future beyond exclusion and suspicion and all the immature fears that keep us at each others’ throats in this macabre pageant of world history.
Jesus’ good news is NOT only comfort for us in the terms we’re used to. It’s bigger than that. It’s an embodied message of God’s love and favor for ALL the human family, even for those we don’t like or approve of, or who are outside the fold.
Friends, without this liberating grace and love, we’ll never be able to see beyond our own fears, biases, and grudges. We will constantly try to drag others into our discontent.
Without this liberating grace and love, we’ll never find the courage to build a better world. We’ll never be able to do the work Jesus started—bringing about the Kingdom of God, a place where God’s love reigns and peace is the reality. And we will inhibit the growth of the Church.
Remember when Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” I ask you three times, “Do you love God? Do you love God? Do you love God? If you do, you show it by loving others—especially those you don’t like. Otherwise, your faith is useless. You can’t love God and hate your neighbor or holy other.
Without God’s liberating grace and love, we will have to ensure that we keep it out of our Church, so that nothing will disturb the status quo, that reassuring calm of an immature faith. And sadly, like the Nazarenes, we will find that Jesus has slipped away in the midst of us. Amen.