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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
February 3, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Central Passage
Luke 4:21-30
Subject
Epiphany 4C
Description

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: February 3, 2019 – Epiphany 4C

1 Cor. 13:1-13; Luke 4:14-21

 

Me First!

 

            In 1988, journalist and political commentator Bill Moyers wrote an article for the Washington Post, in which he recalled this anecdote about then-Vice Presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson, on whose staff he served at the time. In 1960, as Johnson traveled in his motorcade through a Southern state, he noticed a number of ugly racial epithets scrawled onto signs. Later that evening in the hotel, after all the dignitaries had gone home, he remarked to his young staffer, "I'll tell you what's at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."

 

            Now Johnson was not known for being a particularly moral or kind human being. Read Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson if you want to really delve into the man. But he was a master politician, and he knew how to manipulate people. You want someone to support you and your cause? Give them someone to look down on. Give them someone to feel superior to. Give them someone to hate. Remind them of their innate goodness and assure them that they are first in line for any benefits that they might reap should they support you. Do this effectively and you can get people to do whatever you want.

 

            Jesus does the exact opposite.

 

            The lectionary splits up Jesus’ first sermon in the Nazareth synagogue into two parts. Remember what we heard last Sunday. Jesus stands up in the synagogue and the scroll of Isaiah is brought to him. He reads Isaiah 61:1-12: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the synagogue assistant, and says, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

 

            I’ll bet, for a few seconds, you could have heard a pin drop.

 

            Obviously, the congregation at Nazareth thinks that Jesus is talking about them. Are they not poor? Are they not oppressed? After all, Nazareth was a tiny village, a few miles from Sepphoris, Herod Antipas’ capital. Sepphoris was where the rich and powerful lived. It was a center of Roman power in the region. Nazareth was poor folks; the wrong side of the tracks. If Jesus had stirred up their hatred and resentment of “those people”, especially of the Gentiles that dominated their lives; if Jesus had reminded them that they were God’s chosen people and that they, therefore, came first, what a base of allegiance he would have had! The hometown boy that made good comes home; rallies up the crowd; begins a revolution to change the world!

 

            But Jesus does the exact opposite. He reads the crowd perfectly. “You’ll quote this proverb to me, ‘Doctor, heal yourself!’ Do the miracles we heard you did at Capernaum.” He knows what they want to see and what they want to hear. But Jesus is no one’s dancing monkey. He’s not an entertainer. The point of the miracles, in any case, is to point to the greater reality of the Kingdom of God. And then Jesus shatters any illusion of building up the crowd’s chosenness; their superiority to others. He quotes two stories in which Gentiles – “those people” – were chosen by God over all those in Israel: the story of the widow at Zaraphath, with whom Elijah stayed, and the story of Naaman the Syrian, whom Elisha cleansed from leprosy.

 

            Well, that was the end of that sermon! The congregation immediately becomes a lynch mob. They try to throw Jesus off a nearby cliff. Jesus has shattered their sense of superiority; their entitlement; their assumption that because they are part of God’s people, they ought to come first. For that, Jesus can no longer be tolerated.

 

            How often do we feel that way? How often do we feel like we’re “more deserving” or “more worthy” than other people? How often do we look down on others who are poorer than us; who rely on the food pantry or government assistance? How often do we separate ourselves from people not in our chosen circle? I’m with you in all of this – too often I find myself on a self-appointed judgment seat when someone comes into our office seeking utility assistance. After all, that is part of my job, right – to determine who is “worthy” of assistance and who isn’t? I’ll tell you a little anecdote. Not long ago, a woman came into my office seeking assistance. And I could smell her before I saw her. Stale cigarettes, unwashed clothes. We gave her the assistance because she clearly needed it, but you can bet that I was judging her. “Why doesn’t she take a bath? Why doesn’t she quit the cigarettes (never mind how hard it is to quit)? Why doesn’t she take care of herself?” Judgment, judgment, judgment.

 

            Which is one of the reasons why Jesus lived and taught among us – to show us, especially those of us who have a nasty tendency to think we’re “better” – that we’re not better at all. That Jesus is for all – but especially for those we tend to leave out. In fact, if we think we ought to be first, we might find ourselves last. Jesus says something about that, too! All these human-made social hierarchies are the result of our sinfulness. And this is at the root of the gospel’s offensiveness. It’s also at the root of the gospel’s saving power. The love of Jesus, described so beautifully by Paul in our reading from 1st Corinthians, is for all people. And when that love is embedded deep within us through daily repentance and prayer – a return to baptism, as Luther described it – we see the world and others around us much, much differently. We let go of our judgments. We let go of our superiority. If we’re on the other side, we let go of our inferiority. We realize that we are all truly one in Christ – all parts of Christ’s body, united in his love. And his love casts out all judgment, all fear, all hatred.

 

            Let us pray.

 

            Save us, Lord, from our tendency to elevate ourselves above others. Save us from the automatic judgments we make. Help us to live more fully in your love through daily remembering of our baptism. Amen.

 

© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.