February 3, 2013, Third Sunday after Epiphany
Year C, Epiphany III
February 3, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
Last week, we found Jesus reading from Isaiah in his home synagogue in Nazareth, thus declaring His earthly ministry… bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, the jubilee. Right? We ended where this week begins, with the proclamation, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
So this week, he is still in the synagogue in Nazareth and you know what, they were quite impressed. “They said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” The way Luke tells it, this statement is not sarcastic, not in the tone “who does he think he is?” but more “wow, this is Joseph’s son.” Then, Jesus does something rather puzzling; he seems to try to tick everyone off. He offers a Greek and Jewish witticism, “Doctor, cure yourself!” He suggests that they will demand miraculous proof of his authority like in Capernaum, then he tells of Elijah and Elisha and how the grace of God was delivered through them not to good observant Jews, but to the Sidonese widow and the Syrian general Naaman, in turn the least of these and the Other (an enemy even). If he had meant to anger everyone, Jesus was very successful, so successful that they took him to the brow of a nearby hill so they could throw him off a cliff. (For anyone who missed it, He got away.)
The primary lesson of this Gospel passage is quite straight forward, it is about transgressing boundaries. In the drama of the story, we see how challenging, how triggering, how frightening the Word of God can be, particularly in the Word’s constant and consistent imperative to include and embrace the other. Jesus did not just come for His own, YHWH, the God of Israel is revealed in Jesus Christ as being God for everyone always and everywhere.
For everyone, always and everywhere. That covers a lot of territory. How can anything be so universal? Look at our world, how fragmented and conflicted if not combative it is. And right here, even Jesus personally is able to anger his hometown so deeply with his theological commentary that they are ready to throw him over a cliff. If Jesus can’t get others to agree with him, let alone not try to heave him over a cliff. How doe we talk across difference?
This has come up a couple of places very distinctly this past week, that has really got me thinking about how do we accept, or at least hear things we don’t agree with, believe in, think is right, whatever. No matter what we do, where we live (even South Eugene), no matter who we are, we will always be in relationship with those with whom we cannot agree on much with. We all have brothers-in-law, right? How, in our ever more polarized society, from our ever more personalized information streams, from our evermore isolated lives and degraded communities, how do we encounter the other?
We are in the middle of a quite remarkable book study group, reading The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. We have had a great conversation. The book is pretty left of center and the authors are pretty unequivocal in their critique of mainstream American politics, Republican and Democrat. I think it is very good; not perfect, mind you, but good, solid, offering unapologetic arguments about the rights and wrongs around poverty that we just don’t hear in our national debate like the word “poverty.” When is the last time you heard that word in the news?
There are critiques of the book, too. One person asked if the book got more “prescriptive” rather than “descriptive,” a polite way to ask if they ever stop complaining and make some recommendations. Fair enough. And then someone else lifted up their discomfort that the book is too much of a rant, too unequivocal that it will invariably alienate those who see it differently, making dialogue impossible. True that. I can’t imagine the response some of my old Marine buddies would have to this book.
My response was that the word “Manifesto” is right there in the title and that while manifesto is not actually Latin for rant (I looked it up), it is pretty close. Think Jefferson, Marx and Lenin, Solanas: the lines between rant and manifesto are blurry at best, and the point of these writers is to say what they know no matter the consequence. Is that helpful?
Then closer to home, I went up to Portland on Friday to meet with the Bishop. He’s well and says howdy. (He thinks Resurrection is pretty cool; he appreciates our liturgy and our leadership in outreach efforts). After the meeting, Mark, who road up with me, introduced me around Right to Dream Too (R2D2 for short). R2D2 is a small lot on the corner of 4thand Burnside. The gate to Chinatown is their front yard if that helps place it. On that plot of land live 50ish people in small tents, who have the common mission to provide a safe place to sleep. They do that with a few large awnings where the tired can lay down and sleep without fear that they or their belongings will be harassed. It is sobering to see 15 exhausted men sleeping side by side in the middle of the day. Many sleep there during the day because it fills up at night; they stay awake, walking to stay warm, then come to sleep once the night sleepers are done and someone has taken the sleeping bags with a handful of donated quarters to the laundromat for the day shift. It is an amazing place.
The homeless helping the homeless. This very basic thing, providing a safe place to sleep, you can’t imagine the ire they have raised in Portland. The city is dead set against this rest area to the point that the city fines them over a thousand dollars a month because they re-zoned the land once the owner let them put up the camp. The only reason it even exists is that the city shut down one of the land owner’s pornography shops, so as a counterpunch, he leased the land to R2D2 for this purpose, knowing it would be a thorn in the side of the powers that be. In addition, the neighborhood association has been withering in its complaints and critiques, even though crime is down measurably and there is a lot less trash on the streets of Chinatown. And the downtown business association’s private police force and certain members of the Portland Police Bureau regularly harass R2D2 members, their guests and even folks who help out with showers and the like. They can’t even negotiate, because the city and the neighbors can’t/won’t sit at the table.
And then there is little old here. From a conversation about assault weapons that arose on the listserve, to inevitable disagreements about endowments, music, how we do hospitality, what is going on in the parking lot, how or if to build an addition and if so, how we should raise the money for it. We don’t have a culture of conflict here, but conflict, disagreement arises as good people find themselves believing that they are right while other good people think they are right. The organ did this. A previous bishop did, too. As did clergy and some good people here did in the past, and around a variety of issues, sometimes important, sometimes not.
Jesus told his neighbors that God was for everyone and they tried to kill him. Our national political debate won’t even let the word poverty be spoken, nor climate change. Forget about constructive gun control or reasonable tax policy in this climate that needs changing. The folks at Right to Dream Too believe that everyone needs a safe place to rest, and the city and their neighbors won’t sit at the table with them. We’ve had conflict here that drove people from the church, all church, permanently.
We’re not going to do away with conflict, it is part and parcel to existence. Two positive ions in close proximity are in conflict, they repel each other; it is the nature of things. So we must not fear the reactions. What Jesus had to say needed to be said. The ranting of Smiley and West needs to be done, it is true. The embodied prayer of Right to Dream Too needs to be prayed, even the decision to add to this building or change our hospitality patterns, if they are made (and I am not saying they will be…) we, all people of principle and faith need to do what our hearts tell us to do, when we glimpse truth, we need to proclaim it; when we sense the right, we have to respond; when the word of God manifests before us, we have to act. Sometimes our plans and expectations will be on the line. Sometimes relationships lay in the balance. Sometimes, sometimes lives depend on the right and true and good being expressed and acted upon. Sometimes we need to wade into the fray with what we know. But how do we know when to buckle down, when to make a stand, when to declare it Alamo time? The test is that one word, that one simple that Paul so gallantly holds up for us: agape, love. If it is done in love, honestly, authentically, truly in love, agape, kind of love, how could you be wrong? And even if you are, if you are doing it in love, you will be forgiven. AMEN