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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 3, 2019 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

Today, I am going to hold myself to a higher standard. In the Gospel reading we just heard, Jesus is standing up and challenging people in a way that enrages them. They charge after him, forcing him back, and then, according to the original Greek, they try to “cast him down headlong.” However, in a miracle of elusiveness that can’t be put into words, Jesus somehow slides through the angry crowd and goes forward on his way. The low hanging fruit here, that is very hard for me to resist, is to make a Superbowl football joke. Jesus... not getting thrown down... going forward through his opponents... A timely but cheesy sports joke; it’s hard for me to refrain. But I will. A higher standard.

Seriously, today’s Gospel is indeed an interesting story of competition and, we might say, mutual rejection. Jesus’s rejection of his kin’s tribalism and then their rejection of him. It’s not the easiest story to wrestle with. To be honest, after last week’s Annual Meeting, with all the positive energy there... looking forward to a new building and all the possibilities it opens for us... the time of affirmation and gratitude... I was hoping that this Sunday’s readings would have more of a “ra ra” vibe to them. But instead we get this hard moment in the life of Jesus when he has returned to his hometown. It’s not long after his baptism and his time in the desert. And he’s begun to make a name for himself in other towns, healing and proclaiming the Good News. And the people he grew up with are happy and proud to have him back. As Luke tells this story, they’re not immediately dismissive of him. They’re actually impressed with the grace and beauty and power of his words. They’re a little confounded by the fact that this is the son of the local handyman Joseph. But Luke doesn’t tell the story as if they initially are rejecting Jesus. Indeed, what is rather surprising is that Jesus seems to reject them first. He tells them stories from the Hebrew Scriptures of when God’s healing and mercy came to foreign Gentiles but not the Jewish people. Not them. It was a smack in the face for Jesus’s Jewish community. Imagine... a guest preacher comes in here to St. James’s and tells us how God does great things with other churches but not with us. This is what Jesus does here. Why?

Well, Biblical scholars debate this. It would be irresponsible to say we can know definitively what’s going on here. But it seems like Jesus saw in his people a love that was not expansive. They loved Jesus. He was theirs. But it was a tribal brand of love. They wanted their rock star back for themselves. They had no desire to share Jesus with others nor did it necessarily even occur to them that they should. But for Jesus a non-inclusive love was no love at all. And so, drawing on the wisdom of the stories of their shared Jewish heritage, he shows them how they are not living up to their ideals. He tries to shock them out of their insular worldview. God is for all and so I am for all, he says. And sadly, they don’t get it. At least, at that point, they don’t. They reject Jesus; casting him out of the community; and seeking to throw him down, maybe off a cliff. Jesus rejects their inability to love and welcome expansively so they reject Jesus.

We, at St. James, do seek to be welcoming and inclusive. And, I think this community genuinely has reason to be proud of that. Perfect at it, surely we are not. But we do have a community that deeply understands how much inclusivity is not a cute little liberal capitulation to culture, but rather at the very heart of the Gospel, at the very core of the nature of God and God’s love. Again, St. James’s does fall short in being inclusive at times, and we all fall short individually of it. But we do strive to do the hard work on ourselves to be more inclusive. And I think that is more what we should be proud of: not for how welcoming or not we actually are, but for our willingness to do the soul-searching, sometimes painful, continuing work to be more welcoming and inclusive. The work that Jesus’s hometown isn’t up for in today’s Gospel.

But I want to take this idea that Jesus rejects people in a little different direction. The question I want to ask you is: what is Jesus rejecting in you right now? What is that piece of how you live or think or act that Jesus would have harsh words for? What narrative are you locked into that, no matter how much truth or loves lies in it, Jesus would challenge because it deafens you from hearing the narrative of someone else where God also can be found? What balloon of yours would he pop? It’s not a pleasant kind of question to consider, but one that I think we all must ask of ourselves from time to time.

For me, I’ve gotten a little better over the years with hearing rejection and criticism. But it still stings sometimes. For me, there are parts of my psyche that want excessive control and mastery over my world. There are parts of me that want to feel like I know everything I need to know. Parts of me that are wrapped up in my ego and pride. Parts of me so afraid of failure that I don’t even want to try. Parts of me that care too much about how I am perceived by others and not enough about how I am perceived by God. Those are some of the balloons in my head that Jesus has to keep on popping. We’ve all got ‘em.

But this is when I need to remind myself that this brand of rejection of the broken parts of me are not because they are all bad, or because I am bad. No, this kind of rejection is indeed a blessing because it also me to face my shadows, love them as part of my humanity, and grow beyond them thanks to the grace of God. I was reminded this week of a piece in Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards. Falling Upwards is this great book where Rohr articulates what the journey of faith looks like in the second part of life. A lot of what we talk about in the church really is about the brands of self-discovery, prayer, and call to action that people of faith in the first half of life move through. If you are someone with a little bit of gray in your hair, you might consider checking out Falling Upwards.

Anyhow, in this book, Rohr is talking about facing our darker sides and he writes, “Our mistakes are something to be pitied and healed much more than hated, denied, or perfectly avoided. I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you.” Jesus’s rejections are not to make us feel bad about ourselves...that’s what the world does but not Jesus... no, his rejection is a mirror he places in front of us so we can see the illusions, the thought patterns, the ways of living and being that hold us back from becoming our best selves... that hold us back from connecting in love with others and the world... that hold us back from entering more deeply into the mystery of God.

So much holds us back, mires us in a drab status quo. But with God there is always more, and so I think when we choose to enter into the brands of spiritual growth that Jesus makes possible for us, we too become more- increasingly boundless like God is boundless. People who are spiritually mature, in some ways, their identities seem well-defined, solid, and reliable. But, in other ways, I think their identities are less clear. More mercurial. They know how to zig when everyone else only zags. They know how to find that perfect word that didn’t occur to anyone else but perfectly captures the moment. They are more wide-open because, some of the old bounds, the old brands of self-definition have fallen away. It is clear there is just so much to them. They are so caught up in God’s boundless love that they too are boundless in love. So caught up in God’s boundless wisdom that their wisdom is boundless. So caught up in God’s freedom and joy and playfulness that they find play and joy even in times of sorrow and pain and challenge. There is always yet, another wonderful thing with God. And that is what Jesus opens us too.