Epiphany 4 Traditional Sermon

Have you ever been so angry at someone you wanted to hurl them off a cliff? Unfortunately, Jesus did!

Two weeks ago, I lead our annual women’s retreat at Camp Kirchenwald – the theme was Holy Imagination.  One of the activities was taking a look at Jewish writings known as Midrash – an ancient commentary on part of the Hebrew Scriptures, attached to the biblical text.

Midrash was written by several Rabbi’s in an attempt to fill in gaps and holes of a biblical story for a more fluid and complete understanding of the text. The term itself originates from the Hebrew word for “to seek, study, inquire” (written after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem around 70 CE)

In other words, It would reform  a “flat biblical story into a more three dimensional story, complete with character personalities, more detailed descriptions and often these interpretations would help to answer a question or a problem that the original story could explain in their modern culture.

For example, in Jewish Midrash, the story of Adam and Eve looks to answer why Eve was created from Adam‘s rib – In the words of the Midrash –

Woman was not formed from Adam’s head, so that she might not be haughty; nor from his eye, so that she might not be too eager to look at everything; nor from his ear, so that she might not hear too keenly and be an eavesdropper; nor from his mouth, so that she might not be a chatterer; nor from his heart, lest she should become jealous; nor yet not from his hand, so that she might not be afflicted with kleptomania; nor from his foot, lest she should have a tendency to run about. She was made from Adam’s rib, a hidden, modest part of his body, so that she, too, might be modest, not fond of show, but rather of seclusion…the writer of this Midrashim explanation went on to say that woman acts contrary to this understanding of creation!

This is a great example of how the scriptures are a living, breathing document, stories that don’t remain static and stuck in the first century. Because if that is how we viewed the biblical story, then it would become nothing more than a history book and God stopped speaking after the first and second centuries after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So, in the tradition of Jewish Midrash, I am going to fill in the gaps of this Gospel Story:

Jesus was asked to lead worship when he returned to Nazareth. In fact this was his first sermon that he preached.  He had just come from spending 40 days in the wilderness and battling with Satan.  He had to admit that he was a bit grumpy from no food and lack of sleep.

 He decided to preach from his favorite scriptures, which happened to be the prophets.  He got up to the pulpit read from the scroll of Isaiah:  “This Spirit of God is upon me, because the Lord anointed me; and has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted to proclaim liberty to the captives, release the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Favor: and ended the reading by stating “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. The crowd beamed.   He was their hometown hero and he had come back to Nazareth- to proclaim the Lord’s favor upon the faithful Jews of Nazareth. After all, it was they who needed release from the corrupt Roman Empire.  The crowd in the synagogue beamed with pride and all were arguing who knew Jesus best, especially before he became such a religious celebrity!  Way to Go Jesus- hopefully there would be time for autographs, after Jesus tramples the Roman Empire, they will be collector’s items!

A man from the crowd shouted– Give us a miracle Jesus – just like you did in Capernaum.  The crowd all agreed –Why should they not receive a little benefit from Jesus’ ministry? After all, Jesus knew many of them personally, they watched him grow up, and certainly he would favor his hometown crowd!

But to the horror of those assembled, Jesus instead reminded them of the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who themselves bestowed God’s forgiveness, healing and grace upon foreigners, thereby shunning those in need in their own hometowns.

The crowd turned into an ugly mob – Who does he think he is, Shouted someone, “He has turned his back on his own people” shouted another.  Still another cried “He prefers to perform miracles for those dirty Gentiles, those who worship other gods, those are not like us!”

Jesus realized that they were not ready to hear the truth; the truth about the inclusiveness of God and God’s Kingdom.  They did not understand that the Messiah came to bring the good news for all of God’s Children, Jews and Gentiles, men and Women, lepers and widows, those who probably needed this good new the most.  Their minds were already made up – they had their own views of the Messiah and just wanted reaffirmation of their own beliefs. The people were so busy being angry and right fighters that they never noticed that Jesus quietly left to travel to Capernaum.  Jesus knew that this would not be his Final confrontation during his ministry.

Fast forward to 2019, Do we as Christians feel entitled to the work of Jesus among us? Do we think that Jesus should bless our church first? Or, do we share with Jesus his concern for the marginalized and vulnerable and for those beyond the boundaries of our local congregation?

Do you know people like those in the synagogue who always only hear what they want to hear? Who interpret everything in a way that fits their own views?   I believe that most of us can state emphatically Yes!   But the problem is, it’s not everyone else, it also includes every one of us.  This is called biased information processing and it is a common phenomenon. It happens when the information we receive is out of sync with what we believe to be true, or want to be true, or when the information is inconvenient for us.

Jesus told those in the synagogue something in direct conflict with what they wanted and expected to hear.  If Jesus was Jew and performing miracles for others, then he should do more for them.   They followed the rules of Jewish Law, they participated in the required rituals, and worse, they suffered under the Roman occupation and they were promised a Messiah, a Jewish Messiah who would liberate the oppressed and who was more oppressed then the Jews?

Yes the Jews in our Gospel story suffered from Confirmation Bias.  This tends to occur when we feel strongly involved and our opinions or beliefs are threatened. If this happens, we tend to pay attention only to arguments that favor our pre-existing opinion, prefer evidence supporting our favored arguments – in short, we only hear what we want to hear.

The Jews in our story were not open to dialogue with Jesus.  Their first reaction was one of anger which turned violent, the people wanting to hurl Jesus off a cliff. Their anger was so severe that they never noticed that Jesus had quietly left their town.  They became blind to the reality around them.

One of the morals of this story is that Jesus didn’t engage; he didn’t fight –This crowd was so entrenched in their beliefs that he realized that there was no way at that moment that he could have a rational discussion on the Kingdom of God and his role as the Messiah.  Their ears, mind and hearts were not open.

Fast Forward 2000 years and things don’t seem to be much different.  In fact, technology and social media have only increased this confirmation bias.  There is a multitude of conflicting information from which we can choose. We can find a news program that confirms our own biases, and social media does the research for us, providing us with more and more ammunition to entrench our own understandings of cultural issues. 

Christians are certainly not immune from this type of behavior.  In fact, it is almost impossible to be bias free.  We form an opinion, look for others with our same opinions, when confronted with information that runs counter to our beliefs, we tend to reinterpret that information to fit our original belief or opinion. Which leads us to become more emotional in our opinions because now we are sure we are right!  We then continue to discount and discredit new or better data because then we would have to reconstruct our belief system, apologize to people, admit we were wrong and so on.

 This is a cycle that needs to be broken and I believe that as Lutheran Christians we can take the lead!  It is not a comfortable process and it will shake the foundations of many of our opinions.  We may fear the outcome and have to change our minds, or at the very least, agree to disagree.  Maybe rather than focusing on what separates us, we look first at what unites us, then we can move forward.

Last week our youth presented a sermon drama about working together for a common good.  In the first letter to the Corinthians, a multitude of disagreements were bubbling up in this community..disagreements that were causing division in the church.  These disagreements consisted of which spiritual gifts were more important, when to take a dispute to court,  eating food that has been sacrificed, and how to arrange one’s hair when prophesying.   The church was divided over leadership. Some followed the teachings of Paul, while others followed Peter. Intellectual pride was firmly at the center of this spirit of division.

Paul urged the Corinthians to focus on Christ and not his messengers. The church is Christ’s body where God’s spirit dwells. If the church family is separated by disunity, then it ceases to work together and grow in love with Christ as the head.

Paul was asking the people of this new church to put aside their personal beliefs and opinions for the greater good.  Focus on what is important and unifying- Jesus Christ.  Jesus wanted the Nazarenes to focus on the big picture – not what He could do just for them, but what he could do for the whole world. 

As Christians, we can model living and working together in Unity, even when we disagree on the minutia.  We can be big picture people – understanding that the Kingdom of God is among us and we are called to bring the good news to the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort those who mourn and to love each other with patience and kindness, even if goes against the very beings of our soul. 

As big picture Christians we don’t have to agree on how Christ’s mandates are carried out – because as we read in the letter to the Corinthians, we have each been gifted with different spiritual gifts which will lead us to minister to each other differently.  Christ summed up the Old Testament laws into 2 – love God and love neighbor.  We are given the freedom to carry out those commands differently. 

Some of us are called to advocacy; being a voice for those on the margins.  Some of us are called to minister to the sick and dying.  Others are called to use their hands to build or repair the church building so it can be used for worship and outreach.  Still others are called to teach and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ; to sing praises to God or to pray for those in need. 

Living in community is tough and being an extended family of Christian Lutherans brings many challenges.  We are different economically, politically, racially and ethnically.  Our passions are different and we each have our own opinions of the purpose of this community we call church.  Jesus and Paul are telling us that we need to put our own opinions aside and focus on the bigger picture – focus on what we have in common – we are all children of God – saved by the Grace that came with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

We need to tear down those walls that surround us which keep us from being in dialogue with those for whom we disagree.  Find common ground as Christians and work on behalf of the Gospel – a Gospel that includes Good news for all – Those with full time employment and those on welfare, those who worship weekly and those who are struggling in their faith.  Those who thrive financially and those who live in poverty – Those who live healthy life styles and those who suffer from addictions.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to judge – Jesus doesn’t grant grace based on merit and Jesus didn’t only come to those who already believed that he was the Messiah. 

I will close with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his book entitled,  Life Together, The classic exploration of Christian Community:

“There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.

 It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us that of hearing our brother’s confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects.  Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.” Amen.

Sister Dottie Almoney

Sister Dottie Almoney

Director of Education & Outreach

Our youth grow into faithful disciples through education, fellowship and service. I am also excited about the new social ministries in which we are partnering with other Manheim Township churches, such as Lydia’s Closet and Homes for Hope.

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