Monday, July 10, 2006

Standing Under the Good News (Proper 9B sermon)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
at the Episcopal Church of the Mediator, Chicago, IL
on July 9, 2006 (Proper 9B)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Misunderstandings can sometimes seem like our lot in life.

Take, for example, Yogi Berra, the hall of fame catcher for the New York Yankees. Yogi is known for his odd witticisms and general mangling of the English language. One day in the Berra household, they were having trouble with one of their window treatments, and so they called in a repairman. Later, his son came up and told his father that the man was here to collect for the Venetian blind. Yogi replied, “Well, go into my wallet and give him a few bucks for the blind kids just to get rid of him."*

I’m sure that the blind citizens of Venice were grateful.

Or consider a teacher I had in high school. She described the time she was on a student exchange program in Spain and wanted to explain to her hosts that she was embarrassed. Choosing what seemed the most likely word, her embarrassment increased substantially when she realized that she had just mistakenly told everyone that she was pregnant!

Of course we’re not the only ones beset by misunderstandings. This morning we come across a scene of misunderstanding in the gospel reading.

Continue reading Standing Under the Good News

This might seem odd on the face of it. Here’s Jesus, he returns to his hometown and teaches in the synagogue. But this isn’t just a homecoming, local-boy-makes-good story. His teaching astonishes people. He teaches with words of wisdom and deeds of power. And he seems to say surprising things.

The other gospels that tell this story, especially Luke, make clearer just what Jesus said. He was proclaiming good news for the poor, and God’s favour for people outside the power structure – outside the power structure of the synagogue, outside of the village, outside of Israel, outside even of the Roman Empire itself. In Jesus’ teaching, God was not merely a partisan, lining up on this side or that, respecting the way we divided up the world. Rather, God through Jesus Christ was reconciling the whole world to himself and bringing new life, new priorities, new relationships. On the face of it, this seems like very good news indeed. And yet his hearers couldn’t grasp it and they took offense at him.

It’s a strange thing to hear good news and misunderstand it. We can imagine the doctor in the waiting room saying to us your child came through the surgery ok. Or we can – perhaps – envision an IRS agent saying we made a mistake in our tax return and paid too much, here’s a refund check. As good as these bits of news are, they’re pretty easy to grasp. So what happened back in that synagogue so long ago?

Well the fact is successful surgery or a tax refund hardly touch the good news of the kingdom. If you will, imagine instead a doctor who comes into the waiting room and tells you that your child didn’t need surgery after all because he is immune to all disease. Not only that, his immunity is itself communicable and whoever comes into contact with him becomes immune to all disease. That would rock our world. Or think of an IRS agent on your doorstep – not to give you a refund, but to give you a checkbook. These checks, he explains, can be written for any amount, for any purpose, so long as they go to help someone else. The account the checks draw on can never be exhausted, and they’ll send you new checks when you run out. Again, the only condition is that they can only be used to help other people.

Good news? Friends, that’s great news. News like that would turn the world upside down. And that’s why these people had such a hard time hearing what Jesus said.

The sort of good news that he brought, wisdom from God accompanied by deeds of power – it made their heads swim. Like my examples, Jesus seemed normal enough. Doctor, accountant, carpenter: Okay, we know what to expect. But this kind of good news: peace, freedom, justice, deliverance, resurrection, new life, self-sacrifice, serving others, love – this turns the world upside down! It changes everything.

If we were to put ourselves in these stories, we might imagine how we would respond: keep our child’s power quiet, so he’s not picked on and we don’t become the center of attention. Hide the checks away so we don’t have to worry about the responsibility of deciding who to give them to and how much to write them for. And if we were there in Jesus’ hometown, and heard what he had to say – well, you can see how it would be a lot easier to shake your head and walk away. Who is this, really? He’s just a carpenter; we know his family. Maybe it sounds good, but that’s just not how things work.

And so it’s easy, at least for them, to take offense at Jesus. It’s easy to seek refuge in the bland pieties and certainties that they’re familiar with and that protect them from the unknown and from each other. Better the misery they know than this good news that they don’t – at least it’s secure. And so Jesus says that prophets are without honour in their own home.

That’s what happened back then in the Galilean Synagogue. But what about us? Are we destined to misunderstand Jesus? Should we just chalk it up as our lot in life?

I wouldn’t be so quick to say no.

We shouldn’t assume that because we’ve heard all the stories before, or have heard sermons – even a sermon like this one – for years on end that we’ve heard it all, much less grasped it all. As a priest and someone doing graduate work in theology, I often turn to Scripture. And I never fail to be amazed at the depth I find there. It’s the same with prayer or worship. I find that they are never done, that’s it always possible to go deeper – because there is no end to the depths of God.

I mention these things – Scripture, prayer, and worship, together with the sacraments – because these are the ways that we are apprenticed to Jesus. These practices are how we tune our ears to hear his voice and see God at work in the world. These are the animating center of our life in Christ, which is then worked out through action in the world. In short, these are how we learn to understand and believe the good news which turns the world upside-down, rather than just shaking our heads and walking away.

Friends, these practices don’t hide away or cover up questions or doubts. After all, doubting isn’t the problem; ceasing to wrestle with doubts is. We don’t so much understand the good news as stand under it. And sometimes we are blessed enough to be given different questions.

For example, perhaps instead of worrying about the question of our death and wondering about life after death, we might instead grasp that new life here and now. Perhaps then we might be freed from being preoccupied with ourselves and instead focus on loving God and loving others well.

Or maybe instead of losing sleep about our parish and what might happen to us, we might instead ask ‘What is God’s mission, here and now?’ Beyond all the busyness and anxiety, what is God doing? And how can we grasp and live that good news that turns the world upside down, instead of walking away or missing it?

Sisters and brothers, we hope in God for that time beyond time when all will be clear and everything will be made new: the lame will walk, the blind – yes, even the Venetian blind – will see, and that long-promised new life will not be an embarrassment but will be good news to all people. But in the meantime, we apprentice ourselves to Jesus through prayer, worship, Scripture and the sacraments so that, by God’s grace, we might not misunderstand, nor even fully understand, but rather stand under the good news. Amen.

* I seem to have lost the reference.

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