Epiphany 4C (January 31, 2016)

Jesus wants us to move from thinking of God as good to asking how we can work with Jesus to build up God’s rule now. Jesus picks up where we left off last week. Jesus has read Isaiah’s words on releasing the captives and has declared that he is the fulfillment of that prophecy. Now, he challenges his listeners. He tells them that the God they gathered to worship is big enough and complicated enough to feed a foreigner during a drought or heal an enemy soldier during a war. (Two well-known Bible stories.) This challenges their way of thinking about God and life. They react with murderous rage, because the hometown boy has told them, “Time to grow up! Time to grow up in faith!” Jesus’ faith stirs him to free captives. Theirs has not matured to that point.

I can almost picture First Corinthians 13, Paul’s words to Corinth, as Paul’s words to Jesus’ home synagogue. In the midst of his famous words on Love, Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Paul is not knocking children; he’s knocking adults. He is saying faith is supposed to grow just as we grow. When we are children, we think concretely. We learn to count and add and subtract, to read and write and identify simile and metaphor, but we don’t right away learn algebra and allegory because, with a few exceptions, we can’t understand them—they’re too abstract. We learn right and wrong, good and bad, happy and sad, and we tie these ideas together in strings. Right and good and happy belong together, wrong and bad and sad belong together. As we get older, we learn that life is more complicated than that. A loved one dies, and we are sad, but they were suffering, so we are relieved and we wonder if that is right or wrong. We learn to solve for ‘x’ (some of us take longer than the others) and that Moby Dick isn’t just about whaling. We begin to ask deeper and more abstract questions.

Problem is we often only teach our faith to children. How many of us “graduated from church” at Confirmation? You can leave if you want, and if you do want to stay you know all that you need. Well, does life stop at 15? For God’s sake, I still couldn’t solve for ‘x’ then! We develop, our thinking grows more abstract. Often, our faith stays what it was when we were children, when we were thinking concretely. Jesus goes with right, good, and happy, and we’ve got a working vocabulary for faith and prayer, and that’s what we know. Faith proves inadequate for life. Faith becomes a place to hide from reality, or it becomes that one concrete constant in an abstract changing world, or it becomes irrelevant, or it becomes lies my parents told me. Faith needs to grow up! This should be the most exciting thing in life. For crying out loud, the maker of the universe is also my neighbor. Isn’t that interesting?

I think this may be the issue Jesus faces when he preaches to his home synagogue. Word that Jesus is good has reached his hometown, but his audience has not actually heard him, yet. They have available to them only their preconceptions of what is good. Perhaps we can see in this scene our own faith being stretched. We’ve mostly “graduated” and have been told that we’ve got what we need. Along comes Jesus, saying, “Come with me and let’s free some captives!” and we respond, “Yes! Amen! …wait, what?” Jesus in this story exemplifies a more mature faith. And Jesus is calling us to grow into maturity with him. Jesus wants us to join him in thinking more abstractly. Jesus wants us to move from thinking of God as good to asking how we can work with him to build up God’s rule now.

You may have heard this story before, of a village by a river. One day a woman was waterside when she found a baby floating in a basket among the reeds. She confirmed there was no one nearby who could have misplaced him, and she took him home, and she cared for the little one. The next day another woman was by the river and found another baby in a basket, and she, too, took it in. The day after, a fisherman found twins. “We always wanted to have children,” he told his wife. “God has given us twins.” Soon, the village was packed with abandoned babies, and the elders began approaching the well to do citizens, asking for aid—donations, or taking on extra babies—and many of them agreed that this was only right. The elders announced the comprehensive plan for how to deal with all the abandoned babies, when a lone woman rose and asked, “Don’t you think some of us should go up river and see what is going on that the people up that way are desperate enough to send their babies down river?”

The story seems to fit, no? We as Christians would care for the babies as they came down the river because it is right: you care for the needy. And in fact our Church does stock a food pantry and help shelter the homeless and put welcome signs and notices for all races or sexual orientations or genders, because we have been taught that these are good, concrete things we can do (and they are.) The call to go up river? That’s Jesus’ call. The call to go up river opens us to a bigger, more complicated picture. It is no longer a case of “right”; we want to address a complex, systemic problem. So also as the faith matures it asks: Why do we allow people to go hungry? Why do we think it is okay to price housing so that people cannot afford it? Why do we marginalize some people as though Jesus would think it is okay to do it?

With his opening sermon, Jesus calls us to let our faith grow as we have grown. Jesus calls us to go up river with him and find out what is going on that people are desperate enough to send their babies down the river to us. Jesus calls us not only to stock the food pantry but to work in our communities so that everyone has something to eat without needing to go to the pantry. Jesus calls us not only to house the homeless but to work in our communities to make sure that everyone has a place to live so that we’re not having to shelter people temporarily. Jesus calls us not only to welcome those whom society marginalizes but to work in our communities to make sure no one is marginalized in the first place.

That work can be really awkward. Many of you know that on Wednesday I was at the State House in Indianapolis advocating against three Senate bills that would have legalized discrimination against LGBT persons. There was a clergy rally and a prayer walk, and that was easy. The last station on the prayer walk ended at the Senate gallery door, where we ran into the group demanding religious exemptions to civil rights. While a seminary student with us prayed, the opposition sang spirituals over top of her. (There really is something ironic about people singing old negro slave songs as part of their program demanding the power to discriminate.) So there we were, packed together. As the hearing opened the gallery was overfull and many of us moved down outside the chamber windows. We ran into youth groups and retired couples gathered to demand the power to exclude humans they don’t like from access to things those humans are entitled to under the United States Constitution… and as human beings.

They were not a murderous mob—I was never in danger of being hurled off a cliff. (If I had, Mike Delliquadri would have caught me, I’m sure, or at least phoned Emily with the bad news.) But they were happy to crowd us, to stand on top of us, and to push into our personal space, while our organizers walked up and down the line, saying, “You don’t have to engage them. If any of them try to get a rise out of you, don’t give them the pleasure.” I cannot easily categorize that experience as “good” or “bad.” It was…faithful, in an abstract way. That’s what “going up river” looks like. That’s what it looks like when faith tries to prevent hunger, homelessness, and discrimination rather than only comforting the afflicted.

I wish I could tell you our presence swayed the committee. I wish I could stand here and say there wasn’t a bill before the full Senate that takes Jesus’ name in vain as an excuse to turn folks away from homeless shelters. But I also wish I could stand here and tell you nothing bad ever happened to Jesus. That’s not Jesus, though. Jesus is good, as we learned when we were children, and Jesus is so much more than good. Jesus walks right into the crowd that wants to destroy him, as he does again in Gethsemane. And Jesus comes out the other side still hard at work, as he does on Easter morning. And in so doing, Jesus calls us to move from thinking of God as “good” to asking how we can work with Jesus to build up God’s rule.