February 1, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany 4C

Last week, Keith left us with a challenge. His hope was that in the coming weeks and months, through an in depth study of ourselves, our community, and our God we would leave the people of South Baldwin County scratching their heads and asking, "what has gotten into those St. Paul's people?" It is a good challenge. One that I too hope to see happen. But thanks to the wise folk who put together our Lectionary, Keith only had to deal with half of the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown of Nazareth. This week, we are reminded that "what has gotten into them" is not always asked in a kind and awe-inspired tone. Sometimes, it means, "y'all are nuts" or "you can't be serious" or as is the case for Jesus in Luke's Gospel this morning, it can mean, "hey take a look at that nice high cliff over there." Unfortunately, that attitude doesn't always come from the outside. In the Church it is often those on the inside who are happy with and deeply invested in the way things are and don't want to see change happen. Often, like in our Gospel lesson this morning the anger and contempt comes from well meaning religious types who are, on some level, trying to live out the life of faith. Beyond that, sometimes the anger and contempt comes from ourselves as we struggle to give things up or add things onto our calendars. Change is not easy; whether it is changing ourselves or most especially changing our church.
The more I think about the universal human reluctance to change, the more I think it has to do with expectations. The people in the Synagogue had expectations of Jesus. He's Joseph's son; a carpenter by trade. His brothers and sisters still lived there. Most likely, they expected Jesus to hang around Nazareth and teach for a while. They expected his family to throw a party to celebrate his return. They expected him to perform the miracles they had heard about in other town. And then, as he taught, their expectations began to grow even larger. Remember what he preached to them, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed 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... Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This is Joseph's son? He sounds an awful lot like a radical preacher, maybe even the Messiah! And if so, then he would probably begin to create an army, march to Jerusalem and remove the Romans from their oppressive seat of power. They began to expect some sort of special treatment; that he'd give them positions of power in his regime. The people in the synagogue really thought they knew who Jesus was, and expected him to act a certain way.
If we are really honest with ourselves, we too have expectations of Jesus, and we think we know him pretty well. This is especially true of his body still on earth, the Church. Each of us has an idea of what we think the Church generally and this church specifically should look like. We have expectations of our national leaders, and our bishop. We have expectations of our worship services. We have expectations of the groups we belong to: the ECW, the Men's Group, the Altar Guild. We have expectations of our clergy. And we have expectations for ourselves; we volunteer for things that we assume we are good at. All of our expectations are based on the assumption that we know ourselves, St. Paul's, and the Church pretty well. But if we are honest with ourselves, how well do we really know these things, and how much is just assumed? Expected?
I heard a preacher one time say that "expectations are resentments waiting to happen." Certainly, life is not as universal as that statement, but I think we could maybe agree on the fact that silent expectations; our unsaid but strongly held assumptions, are resentments waiting to happen. Jesus gets that. In our lesson this morning he names the crowd's silent expectations. "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" Jesus is in the business of naming expectations and then blowing them out of the water. "Do you think you are special because I grew up here?" "Do you think my life is going to be one of relative ease?" "Do you think this whole thing will end well?" People don't like to have their expectations challenged. In this story Jesus goes from preaching to meddling and it leads to his almost being thrown off a cliff. People really don't like to have their expectations challenged. But like I said, Jesus is in the business of naming expectations and blowing them out of the water.
As some of you might know, I was able to spend this past week in Alexandria, Virginia. My seminary offered every member of the classes of 2006, 7, and 8 the chance to spend a week on campus as a sort of mini-sabbatical. Being back in a place where I had spent such a long and intense period of my life brought all sorts of memories flooding back. Each time I sat in a seat or walked past a building, I was reminded of a story from my three years on the holy hill. One thing that was brought to mind for me over and over was the whole ordination process; a messy roller coaster of emotions spread out over five-plus years. As I reflected on the process, however, and thought about the Gospel passage for today, I found myself feeling extremely thankful for at least one aspect of the whole messy ride. Early on, before the physicals and psychiatric evaluations, before the internships and theological reflection papers, before almost anything else, there is a period in which the Church facilitated my really getting to know myself. As a wet-behind the ears 22 year-old, I thought I knew myself pretty well; honestly I thought I knew just about everything pretty well. But on a weekend retreat, a group of seven or eight of us were encouraged to spend the weekend really getting to know ourselves. We told stories, we took inventories, and in the end we found out the gifts of the Spirit that God had given each of us for his use in the up building of the Church and the restoration of the world, and most of us were surprised by what we had found.
In the coming weeks and months, each of us will have the opportunity to look at our own expectations and assumptions. We'll look at what we expect of ourselves, and ask questions like, "Am I really gifted at this or do my talents lie elsewhere?" We'll look at all the pieces and parts that make up our common life at St. Paul's and ask questions like, “are we, corporately, equipped to do this work or does something need to be tweaked?” And we'll try our hardest to dream about those things that we are not yet doing and ask, “who is gifted by God to lead this new venture?” All with the hope that the folk of South Baldwin will soon be asking, “what has gotten into those St. Paul's people?”
As our gospel lesson reminds us, this process will certainly not be an easy one. We might find that we are ill equipped in some areas that we assumed we were good at. We might find out things about ourselves that we didn't want to know. We might want to run Jesus (or Keith or me) to the edge of the cliff, and that is somewhat natural, but in the end this period of honest self-reflection isn't for us, but for the people we serve and for the Kingdom we profess. My brothers and sisters, I invite you to set aside your assumptions, turn away from your expectation,s and open your hearts and minds to God. Allow him to show you your gifts and talents. Allow him to build his Kingdom with you. What has gotten into us? The very Spirit of the living God. Amen.

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