On the Edge

Luke 4:21-30                                            January 23,2022

What is the most important thing to do right now if you want a deeper faith in God? If you genuinely desire a faith that is alive, guided by the living spirit of God, and nurtures good fruit, what is the one thing you must do? There are lots of good options. You could pray and learn to meditate. Good deeds that help others are always a good thing. You could read your Bible more and attend a Bible study or book group. Walk by the seashore and take in beauty. All of these would do your heart good. You may do some of them already. But what is the next step, the really transformative soul work?

The most important soul work in our age is to examine our biases to be open to new ideas, experiences, and points of view. (Perhaps somewhere in your soul, you now feel like a balloon with the air whistling out.). Challenge my bias? Are you kidding? Here are all the reasons I don’t want to do that.

  • That sounds like hard work. If I start digging around and discovering false assumptions and all the little lies I tell myself, who knows where that might lead? I might just come unraveled. All these little biases and untruths hold me together in these uncertain times.
  • I’ve already had to change and rethink my life so much during COVID. I’m tired of change. One more new thing to cope with just might just drive me over the edge.
  • I’m already an objective person. I’ve examined my blind spots developed my world view, and the bottom line is, I’m right. I respect other people’s opinions, no matter how wrong or foolish, but I’m generally right and comfortable with where I stand.

Maybe, if I’m honest, there is a bit of all three of these resistances in me. I alternate between feeling uncertain, overwhelmed, afraid of the truth, and, on occasion, quite sure I’m right. If you are one of those folks who say, “I love new ideas, I thrive on chaos, change is wonderful, bring it on,” Congratulations, I guess you can take a Sunday off while the rest of us mortals muddle along.

If we take our scripture lesson seriously, where would we be standing when Jesus preached to his hometown in Nazareth? Would we have been cheering his message of good news to the poor and release to the captive, or would we have been ready to throw him off the cliff? How did Jesus create so much controversy?

Remember from last week that Jesus’s audience loved his opening salvo. Here is the good news! Liberation, healing, loan forgiveness, and the coming of God’s favor to set things right. It’s that “I have a dream” moment. When we hear:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Amen!

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all people are created equal.”

Everyone is in the “Amen” corner. Everyone loves the dream until the implementation phase. When MLK joined in worker’s strikes boycotts and criticized the Vietnam War, many thought he was a nightmare unleashed. Do you know that Dr. King never had an approval rating over 50 percent his entire life?

After his inspiring beginning, Jesus is going to bring home some implications of his dream to the home folks. He tells two stories we may not know well. They involve the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament, Elisha, and Elijah. In the first story, a gentile woman finds favor with God during a famine, and the Spirit works through her to support Elijah. The second story of Elisha is quite astonishing.

Naaman, a general of the Syrian enemy, contracts leprosy. He hears that a mighty prophet, Elisha, might cure him. When summoned, Elisha says Naaman must come and wash seven times in the Jordan River, and then he will be healed. The catch is the Jordan is Israel’s holy river. Naaman wonders why he can’t just bath in one of the great Syrian Rivers. There are larger, deeper waters in his own country. Why does he have to go to the puny Jordan River? Elisha insists, and Naaman follows through and is healed.

Jesus lifts up Naaman as a hero. Naaman was a powerful man, stuck in a vulnerable place. The only way he could get well was to reach out to a foreign prophet and healer who lived across a tense border. The path toward healing involved crossing the boundary and acknowledging the healing power of an outsider, another culture, a different way of worshiping god.

Jesus tells his audience: “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”  Don’t you hate it when the power of God heals the wrong person? How dare God work in the lives of people we see as unworthy or undeserving. (By my count, Jesus got in trouble at least five times for healing people. Two involved the healing of foreigners, the Syro-Phonecian woman and the daughter of Cornelius, the Roman centurion.).

Now our story takes a shocking turn. The good folks of Nazareth, good synagogue attending people, turn on their own (the best of their own). They don’t just throw him out of the synagogue.  The mob wants to throw him off a cliff. If I had told this story two years ago, it might be hard to relate to watching people similar to us engage in mob violence. But now we know what an angry mob acts like and what they can do.

Mobs likely look, act, and think similarly in Jesus’s day and our own. A visceral instinct takes over. Righteous fury is in charge. What ignited this mob ready to dash Jesus against the rocks? Peter Gomes, former professor at Harvard Divinty, said “The crowd was not offended by Jesus claims about himself, but about a God who is more than their own tribal deity.”  If Rev. Gomes is correct, this mob saw themselves as defending God’s honor. As if any decent god needed human hands to do violence to protect a deity. Sadly, most atrocities-genocide, torture, violent frenzies-are whipped up to defend a belief in God.

I’m spending more time on this than I expected, because one of the most powerful reasons people reject our faith is that Christians too often look more like that mob than they look like Jesus. I am a dedicated reader of the side comments about religious articles in the NY Times. Over and over, religion is dismissed because of violence and judgement done on behalf of God. A false God, true. Not the God I know and seek in prayer and sing hymns of praise. During my career as a pastor, I have spent so much time figuring out how to draw young families, find the right music, the best practices, and innovative growth ideas. I wonder if we have been trying to solve the wrong problem. Our real challenge is to demonstrate the power of love over against the mob that will justify its violence and hatred in the name of God.

Reading onward, our text says Jesus passed through this angry mob. Here is where I want to know more. How exactly did he escape the mob? Were their cooler heads that were able to head people off? I really want to know how to prevent people from driving truth right off the edge. How do we de-polarize this madness driving our whole society to the brink? Can we find a way, like Jesus, to pass through this moment?

What Luke is telling us in this story is that Gentiles belong, God loves them too, always has from the time of ancient prophets, and always will. Luke’s Jesus is bringing us to a great choice: do we chose the edge of the cliff, tossing over our adversaries in righteous anger? Or like Naaman, we cross the border into the waters of Jordan for our healing?   The folks in Nazareth made their choice and opted for outrage. I doubt that is a choice most of us would make. More likely, we feel frustrated, look away and shake our heads in dismay. It would take a major shift for me to throw someone off a cliff. My downfall is more likely cynicism and despair, or useless moderation in the face of extremism.

So how do we choose love? How can we be the ones who somehow calmed the fury so Jesus could pass through? Can we stand for justice without furthering the polarization and anger?

I have more questions than answers, and God isn’t finished with me yet. I think I have a starting point. In the beginning of the sermon I said, a growing faith happens when we learn to deal with our own bias, so we can think and act and live in new ways. (That sounds like a good project for Lent.)

This is why we are reading, “Canoeing the Mountains.”  Here is my simple summary.  Resistance to change is inevitable. It’s in our DNA. We will resist the change we need. We will try to sabotage the way forward and stay with what we know. But it doesn’t have to be the last word.  With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can also choose to take a journey through unknown territory and find a new way.  Friends, the world needs to find a new way, to remember that we are all in this together, whether we like each other or not. Our way is to practice living as the Beloved Community.  Amen.

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