Fourth Sunday after Epiphany C
Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Eagle River, WI.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
I find it hard to believe that I didn’t start reading these books until my freshman year in high school, but I have always been a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As well as The Silmarillion, The Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The History of Middle Earth, but most people don’t have any clue what those are; and that in itself is an indictment of my complete and total geekery.
Where was I? Oh yes, The Hobbit. If you’ve never read the book or seen the Peter Jackson trilogy of movies, it’s the story of Bilbo Baggins, the titular hobbit, who gets swept up in an adventure quite against his will by a company of thirteen dwarves who are trying to retake their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain from the evil dragon Smaug. Bilbo, being a quite respectable hobbit who wants no adventures of any kind, has never even left the borders of the Shire, his homeland, let alone seen a dwarven kingdom.
About two and a half months into the adventure, after a brief and terrifying encounter with three mountain trolls, the company approach the feet of the Misty Mountains. Bilbo sees the great high peaks and stares up in wonder. “Is that the Mountain?” he asks, thinking their journey is at an end, only to find that that those are just mountains they have to get over, or under, and that there is still a long way to go after that before they reach their destination. Bilbo suddenly feels very tired and depressed at the thought, and wishes he could just go back home, where everything is nice and cozy and easy.
That’s only the beginning of Chapter 3. Poor Bilbo Baggins, who had no idea how long and how hard his journey would be, got his hopes up that it was finally coming to an end, only to find out that he still had a long, hard way to go.
Things are not always as easy as they may appear at first. Some journeys are longer—some treks are harder. Some tasks are more difficult. Some can be downright impossible. Bilbo figured this out after two and a half months on the road with the company of dwarves. Jeremiah figured it out almost immediately.
Poor Jeremiah—I don’t envy him at all. It’s almost like he’s being led on by God at first.
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,”
Okay, we’re off to a good start.
“and before you were born I consecrated you;”
Hmm, consecrated, I like the sound of that.
“I appointed you as a prophet to nations,”
Aww, thanks God, I love you t—WHAT?!
Jeremiah’s no fool. Being a prophet was not an easy job. It required telling people lots of things that they mostly didn’t want to hear. Being a prophet to the nations, plural, meant bringing God’s words not only to Judah, but also to nations that were enemies of Judah. Appointed over nations and kingdoms, Jeremiah is called to “pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow,” and thankfully, to also “build and to plant”. If I were Jeremiah, I’d probably react the same way and try to find any excuse not to speak these words that nobody wants to hear.
But the nations and kingdoms of Jeremiah’s time were not and are not the only ones who were destined to hear things they didn’t want to hear, who found out things were going to be harder on them than they thought.
The story of Jesus visiting his hometown in the Gospel according to Luke is a fascinating story, and not just because the people get all angry at Jesus and try, literally, to toss him off a cliff on the edge of town. I’ve never seen that depicted in a Sunday School lesson, and I think the reactions would be interesting.
It’s also a fascinating story because it goes from inspirational to condemning in the span of a few sentences. Last week, we heard and I preached on Jesus’s reading from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In these words, the residents of Nazareth, a people living under occupation and oppression, heard these words as well: “for you”. We hear those words at the end of that reading as well, don’t we? That Jesus came “for us”. That in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus’s body and blood are given “for us”. That Jesus rose again “for us”. And that is truly wonderful, good news, because we the saving work that Jesus Christ did for us. We need it.
But… and with human beings, there is always a but… it doesn’t take long for “for us” to become “for us only”. Which brings us to this morning’s Gospel reading.
It takes no time at all for Jesus to make his message perfectly clear: that while the work that he is doing is for the residents of Nazareth and the Judeans, it is also for all people. He reminds them that during some hard times in the lives of their ancestors, prophets of God performed miracles among foreigners, even enemies. He asserts publicly and loudly that God cares just as much, if not more, about those outside their in-crowd than those actually inside it. And they try to throw him off a cliff.
Some journeys are just too long. Some treks are just too hard. Some tasks are just to difficult. Some things are just too impossible to accept.
I think and I fear the church can be like this too. There’s a bit of a disconnect in what we say and what we think. We like to think that we understand God’s grace as being for us and for all people, but it is so easy to fall into the thinking that says all of that grace is just for us. It can come out in seemingly innocuous ways: church is for well-behaved kids, not screaming children. The primary purpose of the church offering is to pay for the building.
But I’m afraid it can be worse. Our church is only for people who look like us. God’s grace is only for those who fit our idea of the financially responsible. Our nation is only for Christians, but Christians like us.
The sad truth is that often, too often, we the church, we Christians are all too happy to accept God’s unfathomable grace, God’s amazing gift; and then turn around and hoard it, keep it ourselves, or even decide in our infinite wisdom who else can get a taste of it—on our terms, of course. It’s so much easier when we are in control of God, when we get to decide.
And this is where the bad news part about Jesus’s Good News comes in. The bad news is this whole God thing, this whole grace thing, isn’t just about our own little clubs in our own little buildings we’re so proud of. But we don’t want to hear about that. We’re far more comfortable with a God that fits our exact specifications and dimensions, who looks and acts exactly as we expect, and does so all for our benefit, requiring little to no effort from us. Unfortunately, that’s not how God works.
Jeremiah and Jesus remind us how God works. Jeremiah isn’t sent to tell the Judahites and the other nations what they want to hear from God. He’s sent to bring God’s words of both growth and wrath to them. He’s a truth teller in both senses, calling them to task for their failures but reminding them of God’s love and grace that overcomes all. Jesus does go to his hometown and give his message to them, “for them”, but also tells them in no uncertain terms that he didn’t come just to be good for them: he came to bring God’s grace to all the people they hated—all the people -we- hate, and I’m sure it wouldn’t take us long to think up a list of people, even in our own town, that we hate.
It takes a lot of work to admit that God loves the people we hate. But it takes even more work and more courage to take that love of God and share it ourselves with the people we hate. It takes work, hard work to reach out, to stop thinking of ourselves, and to see the people around us as the children of God that they are, made in God’s image.
It takes work and courage to stop thinking solely of ourselves and our buildings.
It takes work and courage to welcome the stranger fully and openly, without reservation, without condition, without expectation.
It takes work and courage to take risks for the sake of our neighbors, not having a clue if the risk will pay off.
It takes work and courage to share the good news of Jesus Christ with a world that views it and us with suspicion—perhaps rightly so.
It takes work and courage to make ourselves vulnerable, to put ourselves in positions where we can be taken advantage of, for the sake of showing love and grace.
I wish I could say it was quick and easy, but it isn’t. And you may be wondering how or why any of this could be good news. Where is the grace of God in all this? Right in front of us.
And I say that because in all of the work it takes to be Christian witnesses and to show the love of God in word and deed, we forget that the all-encompassing grace of God does in fact extend to us, too.
We forget that while God called Jeremiah to an impossible task, God also promised to give Jeremiah the words to speak and the Spirit of the Lord to guide and protect him. We forget that even when driven out of the city of Jerusalem, God went with Jeremiah in his struggles, never abandoning him.
We forget that while Elijah and Elisha performed miracles for a Syrian and a woman in Sidon, they also brought the message of God to their own people. We forget that Jesus really did die and rise again so that all of creation would be redeemed from the power of sin and death, so that the relationship between God and what God has created would again be mended and made whole.
We forget that God’s inclusiveness, God’s grace shown to those who hate, is the very same reason that God loves us, too. We forget that God’s inability to conform to our walls means that God welcomes us too, gives us strength, and walks alongside us on all of our long, arduous journeys that seem too hard, too difficult, too impossible.
It isn’t easy, being a Christ-follower. We convinced ourselves that it was, but we know it’s not. At times, it can be enough to make us want to give up. But the promises of God, the abiding presence of the Spirit that resists and defeats our every effort to shut others out never leaves, and it never shuts us out, no matter how hard we try to make it so.
Featured Image: This work is copyrighted and owned by New Line Cinema, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Entertainment. It is believed that the use of this image qualifies as fair use under copyright law in the United States of America.