Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I must admit that I don’t have a lot of time for folks who claim that Christians in the United States in the 21st Century are somehow persecuted. You’ll all have heard me say before from this pulpit that living faithfully in the contemporary West can sometimes be hard, but that is largely because we are not forced to choose between comfort and security on the one hand and at least nominal belonging in the Body of Christ on the other. Some of you know that I spent some time in the diocese of Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan, many years ago. As it happens, while I was there a priest of that diocese had been kidnapped, beaten, and then left for dead on the steps of the Cathedral. Some years later, a former professor of mine who had gone on to serve as principal of a school in Peshawar was dragged from his car at a checkpoint and beaten up. So, I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for middle class Americans whining about their rights being violated. Perhaps I’m not as charitable as I ought to be, but I think it really comes down to a matter of perspective and degree.

What we learn from both the Gospel and the Old Testament this week is that the genuinely prophetic vocation is more than inconvenient; it is truly dangerous. (This, by the way, is why I sometimes bristle when colleagues claim to be speaking “prophetically.” My rule of thumg is that prophets don’t have a pension.) When Jesus says some hard, prophetic words to his audience in Nazareth, they turned on him. Jesus had essentially told the crowd that they weren’t as wonderful and special as they thought they were. They assumed that they were like the widow of Zeraphath or Naaman the Syrian, who received God’s special favor in their own days; Jesus said that, to the contrary, they were more like the unnamed widows and lepers who received no special attention.

The crowd in the Synagogue that day were looking for what last week I have referred to from this pulpit before as a Stuart Smalley sermon from Jesus, if any of you remember Al Franken’s self-help guru character from Saturday Night Live from the Nineties. They wanted Jesus to say something like “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” When instead Jesus let’s them know that they’re not special, they react violently:

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

The prophetic vocation of Jesus was risky, it was dangerous, because he had to tell people that they weren’t special, that they were ordinary sinners needing saving.

Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah approached the prophetic task with the tentativeness natural to such a dangerous profession. “Ah, Lord GOD! [he lamented] Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The people of Judah had turned to foreign Gods, had forsaken the God of Israel by worshiping idols, and Jeremiah knew from the outset that preaching against the faithlessness of his kinsman would not be popular, to say the least. A few verses after this morning’s Old Testament reading, God frankly describes both the danger and the promise inherent in Jeremiah’s task: “they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.” Indeed this happened; Jeremiah’s life was threatened by King Zedekiah and his officials who tried to starve the prophet to death, but he was ultimately rescued and his prophecies of the fall of Jerusalem came to pass.

We learn from both Jesus and Jeremiah that God’s truth can be offensive, that the Good News of God is not all sweet-nothings and affirmation. God corrects and convicts, and if the Church is doing its job, it is carrying out the same dangerously prophetic task.

Alas, the church does not always succeed. I once saw a cartoon which showed a crowd of well-heeled parishioners leaving church, and one man says to another “he preaches a good sermon, it’s hard not to offend this crowd.” It’s a funny depiction of a sad truth. One might think an easy, affirming sermon is a good one, but ultimately it’s perilous to the listener, because it suggests one need not do anything in terms of growth, that one doesn’t need a course-correction from time-to-time, and this can turn the church stagnant.

This is not to say that church cannot make us feel better, but if that’s all it does, then Marx was right and it’s simply an “opiate of the masses.” I’ve heard people say that they leave church feeling better than when they arrived, and this is as it should be. We should also, however, leave church with a sense of conviction and with a willingness to live into the demands of the Gospel.

The church, at its best, pushes us to grow in love. If we’ve become stagnant, if we’ve become what Paul calls a “noisy gong or clanging cymbal”, then we must really pay attention to the kind of life to which the Gospel calls us, instead of living in denial, convincing ourselves that we’re just great and special and don’t need to be pushed to something more. The Church, at its best, encourages us to become more loving as Paul described love in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, to become more patient and kind, to rejoice in the truth. She pushes us to set aside envy and boasting and arrogance and rudeness. She convicts us when we do insist on our own way, when we’re irritable or resentful or rejoice in wrongdoing.

It can be uncomfortable when the Church succeeds in Her prophetic task; our natural tendency might be to react, if not violently as the crowd did that day in Nazareth, then at least by becoming indignant. Let us be open, then, to Christ as he pushes us in uncomfortable ways. Let’s not be deluded or petulant, seeing no room for growth, no way to become more loving. Let us, rather, respond with gladness to the opportunity we are given in Christ to become a new creation. It is not easy to become more loving, and it’s even less easy to admit that we need to, but take heart that it is not any of us doing the difficult work of self-transformation, but Christ Jesus himself, if only we permit him to do that work in us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.