Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, January 31 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jer 1:4-10; Ps 71: 1 Cor 13:1-13: Lk 4:21-30

It’s not a particularly easy Gospel reading, this one. Jesus is being oddly provocative with the people in his hometown of Nazareth, and he seems to be saying something here which sounds not only strange but cruel. That there can be a famine in the land and one widow’s son might be spared, but most will die and will not be resurrected. That most lepers will go on being lepers. That most will not be healed. It’s no wonder, actually, that the people in the synagogue wanted to throw him off a cliff. Why would someone who can heal a leper or a demoniac with a single touch not heal everyone? Why not?

But the gospel demands that we look at this question, because it is a question we are still asking, all of us, so much of the time. We are not all healed, most of us in fact are not healed, or at least not in the way we want to be. We do suffer sickness, we do suffer age and disability, grief and pain and loneliness. We are hurt and longing and hungry. Our loved ones do get sick, and they do eventually die, and no one saves them or brings them back to life. Such rescues as we know are temporary, a patch of sunlight, an island in the great chaos, a moment of respite, not enduring safety. We wish for miracles, we wish for all the people we care about to be safe and well forever, to have all our hurts and theirs taken away. But it doesn’t always happen like that. Often, it does not.

The prickly, complicated, and sometimes very unwelcome truth is that God, the God of the gospels, will not rescue us by magic; refuses to do so. We are not passive material, manipulated in God’s hands. We are creative creatures in a world challenging and real. Sorrow and suffering, limit and loss, are a part of this reality, and we make ourselves in response to them, in relationship with them. Without them, the joy and light and beauty would be less, for we ourselves would be less. To take away those hard human limits would be to take away our human lives. The healings attract our attention, but they are not themselves the meaning of the story; they point towards something else.

And, at least for Luke, what they point towards is a greater social healing, towards God’s choice of the outcast and the unwanted. Not the people in the home town, not the already situated, the already known and named, but the outsiders. It is the lonely Gentile widow at the edge of town, it is the foreigner, the stranger, who must be noticed in particular. And it is that noticing, that attention, which is most centrally what God brings us. In our first reading, God does reach down to touch Jeremiah, in a time of danger and adversity, but not to fix him up or make everything suddenly okay. He reaches down to say, “You are mine, I love you, I know you utterly, I knew and loved you from before you were born—and I have a task for you. It will not be an easy one. But I will be with you, I will always be with you, however fearful you are, whatever strange and difficult places you have to go.”

And that’s what we are given, what we are promised; that we are known and beloved, and never alone. This is what it means to be whole. Not that our pains in this life will be gone. But that we always live in the embrace of God’s knowledge, if we can only turn towards God and recognize that, if we can open ourselves up to that relationship which takes us in fully, which reaches out to the excluded above all; which reaches out to us, not in our comfortable places, but insofar as we are the lost, the failures, the rejected. Which takes us in, these lost ones, and then sends us out to do the same.

For when God knows us and names us, God also calls us. God gives us a task. Jesus couldn’t heal everyone, indeed quite pointedly wouldn’t heal everyone. But what he does in the next chapter of Luke’s gospel is to call the twelve, and begin to send them out into the world. He calls us, and sends us, as Jeremiah too was sent. And if we respond to that call, we ourselves will become more whole. We will be healed in the healing of those around us.

What does that mean? Well, that’s part of our task too, trying to find that out. For Jeremiah, it meant identifying the injustice and oppression in his time and place, and calling it out in the public square; it meant telling those in power that their society was collapsing all around them because of greed and selfishness, because they were pursuing their own desires instead of serving the poor and the outcast. And that can be what some people now are called to as well, to look at some of our own social and political structures and ask why thousands of families and children in Toronto depend on food banks to survive, why hundreds of people are sleeping on church floors in the winter because they have nowhere else to go, while big businesses demand tax cuts and subsidies as they accumulate wealth. Speaking that truth is a part of the necessary healing.

It may also mean realizing that the person next to you, in the street, in the church, is quietly suffering out on that edge of town; that the stranger, the foreign difficult person, is lonely, or ill, or in need of something you may be able to offer. It may mean giving each other our attention and kindness, and that is not small, it is not a small thing at all, it is the whole fabric of our human lives. It may mean listening to someone’s story, or making someone a sandwich, or creating a poem or a piece of music. The work of healing is broad and multiple, and its outlines are drawn in Paul’s well-known, perhaps entirely too well-known, description of love, which we heard as our second reading today.

You hear this reading a lot at weddings, you hear it at funerals, and these are legitimate uses, but Paul wrote this first not for a couple or a family, and not for people who already liked each other, but for a community in crisis. These are the guidelines for how a ragged gang of argumentative, selfish, troubled, idealistic people, thrown together in unexpected comradeship by a new shared faith, can start to manage together, to heal themselves and each other and the world, and they are guidelines both beautiful and stringent. They are, more than anything else, guidelines for making space, for stepping back, for the renunciation of self in the face of the needs and longings and simple selfhood of the other. It is the hardest thing, sometimes, to learn, and sometimes the most important.

For if we cannot make that space, then everything we claim to do out of love will be, just as Paul says, empty noise. We will be acting on the basis of what we believe the other person needs or wants, what we think they should need or want, what we ourselves want them to want; we will be doing just about anything except responding, with precision and honesty, to the real other person before us. We will probably never get very good at this, but it is part of what we must always be learning to do.

We can imagine that Jesus, in his human nature, might very well have wanted to heal everybody, all the sick people, in Galilee, in Capernaum, in Jerusalem, in the world. Infinite compassion in a human body would surely have desired immediate rescue for all those wounded bodies. But he knew, as well, that this is more or less precisely what Satan had offered him in the wilderness—power, magic, adoration, gratification. Everything except the stringent self-effacing discipline of love. And God withdraws to make space for us.

We humans do not face that particular kind of renunciation; and yet it is renunciation of a sort which love demands from us. Such good as we may do, such healing as we may bring, such rescue as we can be part of, we are called to. But if we are to do it truly, it means learning to make space for the other, and give up that space for ourselves—letting the stranger, the outsider, or the difficult person right beside us, to exist in their own reality, their own limit, their own pain and their own beauty, and to love them, as best we can, with the careful precision of the love that does not compel and does not end.