Saturday, January 23, 2016

Opiate or Good News

Luke 4:14-21
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan

At the beginning of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment we meet Marmeladov, a hopeless drunk who’s just squandered his family’s wealth. Surrounded by men of vice and low esteem in a rowdy tavern, he grieves his character and misdeeds aloud before finally crying out:

“At the last Judgment Christ will say to us, “Come, you also! Come, drunkards! Come, weaklings! Come, children of shame!” And he will say to us: “Vile beings, you who are in the image of the beast and bear his mark, but come all the same, you as well.” And the wise and prudent will say, “Lord, why do you welcome them?” And he will say: “If I welcome them, you wise men, it is because not one of them has ever been judged worthy.” And he will stretch out his arms, and we will fall at his feet, and we will cry out sobbing, and then we will understand all, we will understand the Gospel of grace! Lord, your Kingdom come!”

And for a just a moment, with all eyes on him, silence reigned in that noisy, lowlife tavern.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson all eyes are on Jesus. There’s a palpable excitement in the air. He who had been publicly ministering for about a year in Judea was returning to his hometown. Poor and out-of-the-way, Nazareth was nothing like New York City. Jesus’s own disciple Nathanael was at first reluctant to follow because of this. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”, he'd asked? 

The people from this town had probably internalized their outlier status. Whether or not you’ve heard Jimmy Eat World’s song “A New Jersey Success Story,” you know what it means by the title. (When I go back to Trenton they roll out the red carpet. The New York City celebrity preacher is back. Everybody wants to shake my hand. But in all seriousness,) one of Nazareth’s own has made it. This backwater town had someone they could claim. Of course the leader of his boyhood synagogue is asking him to preach.

Having been called upon to give the final reading, he unrolled the scroll of Isaiah, found his place, read the lesson, and sat down to preach. (This is like when last year Marilynne Robinson got ready to give a public reading at McNally Jackson, silence reigned and all eyes were on her.) Then, in what is probably the shortest homily of all time, Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And much like a rapper or stand-up comic at the end of his set, he ‘dropped the mic’ and the crowd was left amazed.

But what was it Jesus had read? What did he mean? And what was he saying about himself?

Well, the lesson Jesus had read was Isaiah 61. It was a very important passage for Israel. It speaks of the deliverance of the exiled people of God by an anointed figure empowered by the Spirit of the Lord. This person would bring good news to the poor -- to Israel. Along with the poor as a broad group, this deliverer would proclaim the gospel to specific groups of people: to prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. All of whom might also be described as “poor.” (2) The good news this messianic figure would proclaim to the poor was “the year of the Lord’s favor,” the year of Jubilee, when all debts would be cancelled, prisoners released, and slaves freed. Redemption indeed.

While the prophet Isaiah, who wrote hundreds of years earlier, may have had a contemporary prophetic figure in mind, Jesus declares that the passage’s ultimate fulfillment was happening right then, in their midst, in his very life. The Spirit of the Lord mentioned by Isaiah being the same Spirit who overshadowed Jesus’s mother, descended upon him at his baptism, and was empowering his public ministry. So in saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus is making a radical claim. He is claiming to be the Messiah, the rescuer, the one who would deliver his people from oppression of every kind.

Now it may be surprising to some of you that in this passage Jesus sounds a lot like a revolutionary. Not that the other Gospels are unconcerned with the poor, but Luke consistently highlights Jesus’s deliverance of the materially disadvantaged. We see this first in the Magnificat, or the song of Mary, earlier in this Gospel, and again here as Jesus echoes his mother’s “regard [for] the lowly,” by “filling the hungry with good things” and “sending the rich away empty.”

For in Luke, as in every Gospel, Jesus unlike Caesar, or any politician that you and I have ever known, is not so interested in trying to win the allegiance of the wealthy and powerful, or those with inside connections, or even the religious, but instead gives preferential treatment to those at the bottom rung of society; to those neither Hillary Clinton nor Ted Cruz needs in their back pocket. Those Jesus is interested in are the ones who need good news the most.

Now if we imagine ourselves back in that first century synagogue we might wonder how this sermon would have landed. The people sitting in the first few rows were the rich and powerful of Nazareth -- the who’s who of the town. They can pay for their seats. The poor, the infirm, and the slave are together with the women. They're in the back behind a curtain. They can’t even see Jesus.

This isn’t so very different from the way things were here at Calvary Church in the late nineteenth century. Maybe you noticed as you took your seat the names etched on the end. These were rented pews, and the rich and powerful had the best seats. For all of the wonderful things this church has done and stood for over the centuries, this practice ran contrary to the good news that Jesus preached all those years ago about making insiders out of outsiders. About bringing the people from behind the curtain into the inner room.

But the good news was not just for the economically disadvantaged and oppressed. Interacting with Luke, the Gospel of Matthew extends the recipients of the gospel beyond the materially poor to those who are “poor in spirit.” And like Matthew, the fifth century Egyptian Church Father Cyril of Alexandria wrote that the Gospels ultimately agree that the good news of Jesus is also for those who are “spiritually poor”: to those realistic enough to know that they need rescue just as much as the materially poor.

So Jesus offers good news to all, but will the wealthy and powerful, those with connections, and especially the pious be offended by his preferential option for the poor, the infirm, and the criminal? Will those accustomed to exclusive favor and meritocracy, who are here not even offered preferential treatment, receive this deliverer?

Interestingly enough, despite the fact that his homily appears more directed to the outsiders than the insiders, it’s actually the other way around. If we take another look at the reading and we imagine ourselves again in the synagogue, we notice that as he gives his sermon Jesus’s eyes are on the ‘have’s.’ He’s looking out on the ones in the first few rows, on the people who can actually hear him, on those in front of the curtain. And he’s telling them, contrary to all appearances, that they’re poor. He’s telling them that if they think they’re self-sufficient and autonomous, then they are not recipients of the gospel. He’s proclaiming to the people in front of the curtain that when it comes to their standing before God it’s they who are the ones behind the curtain.

How will the rich and powerful; the insiders and the religious respond? Will they get their backs up and storm out? Will you? Will I?

You see for too long we’ve internalized the superstitious myth that “God helps those who help themselves.” We, either consciously or unconsciously, believe that the evidence of divine favor is prosperity and health or the fact that things are going our way.

I still believe this today, and I get mad and upset when I don’t get what I really want. I mean I’m a priest for crying out loud. I’ve given you everything, Lord. Don’t I deserve the good things that I see the less worthy enjoy?

But the message of this text is that we are owed nothing, no matter how successful, hardworking, or good we may be. Nevertheless, we are promised everything in the good news of Jesus Christ. And when I say everything I don’t mean that things are going to work out the way we want them to, or that your next big break is just around the corner, or that you’ll be #blessed. When I say everything I mean Jesus’s promise that in the midst of the realities and pain of this life he’ll be right there in the midst of it. The author Brené Brown puts it this way, “I thought Christ would say, ‘I’ll end the pain and discomfort.’ Instead he says, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’ I never thought until I found it that that would be enough. But it’s perfect. I don’t feel alone in the pain and discomfort anymore.” (3)

And once we internalize this truth--that God doesn’t promise good fortune but instead promises himself--we can forever set aside the magical-thinking cliches that run around in our brain. Truisms like “everything happens for a reason,” or “it wasn’t supposed to happen” when something doesn’t go your way, or “it’s not the time for grief but for celebration” when someone that you loved has died. The good news of the gospel is that when the depression won’t leave, or things suck, or when tragedies occur we can be assured that God is right there with us and that he is grieving too.

And it is here, when we realize that we are beggars and are in need of a rescuer, that we are in a position to be recipients of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news that despite our neediness and pain we have a deliverer in Christ our Lord who has torn down dividing curtains of every kind and will one day, and even now, set everything to rights.

Maybe you’re here this morning and like Dostoevsky's helpless drunk this good news is the balm of your life. You know you need rescue and here it is. Or maybe you're here and you find this news offensive. You're not a loser and you know it. And this kind of news strikes you as a mere opiate for the Marmeladov’s of the world who just won't get their acts together. There’s nothing I can do to blunt the offensive aspect of the gospel. It was a scandal two thousand years ago in a synagogue in Nazareth, and it’s the same at Calvary Church today. And while for some of us it might take us landing on the wrong side of the curtain before we wake up to our need, it need not for all. It need not for those two thousand years ago, and it need not for you and me who hear this word today.

This is the kind of news that runs the risk of sending the “worthy” home packing, but it’s also the balm that silences rowdy, lowlife taverns. And by the power of the Holy Spirit I pray that it might just soften your defenses and be revealed to you as the greatest news of all.

(1) The song is actually called "Big Casino" but I fudged it because "a New Jersey success story" is part of the chorus.
(2) Ruth Anne Reese, "Commentary on Luke 4:14-21,"
(3) Brené Brown, "Jesus Wept,"
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