Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, February 03 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13: Luke 4:21-30

It’s not a easy Gospel reading we have today. Jesus, in his home town of Nazareth, is saying something here which seems 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 brought back. That most lepers will go on being lepers. That most will not be healed, and that those who are will be are probably the strangers, the foreigners, not his own community, family, friends. 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 dying woman 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. For we are not all healed. Most of us, in fact, are not healed, or at least not in the ways we want to be. We suffer, here. We suffer sickness, we suffer age and disability, grief and pain and loneliness. We are hurt and longing and hungry. Our loved ones get sick, and they are in pain, and they die, and no one saves them or brings them back to life, and we are left here mourning and holding our own pain. Such rescues as we know are temporary, a patch of sunlight, an island in the great flood, a moment of respite, not an enduring safety. We wish for miracles, we wish for the people we love to be safe and well, to have our hurts and theirs taken away. But it doesn’t happen like that. We are out on the sharp edge of this hard world, and no one saves us from the pain.

For some of you, I know, that pain is very personal and urgent right now, the loss very much immediate. For others, it is the the hurt that comes from walking through this city in a time of winter and injustice, the desperation of the street colliding with the indifference of wealth and power. Or it is simply the long sadness of life. And why may we not be rescued?

The prickly, complicated, and sometimes very unwelcome truth is that God will not rescue us by magic; that God refuses to do so. For that would make us puppets in a divine show, and even if some days it seems like that would be easier, that is not what we were made to be. We are not passive material, manipulated in the divine hands. We are creative creatures in a world which is broken and challenging and real, and we in our little poor selves must be an active part of whatever healing there can be. Sorrow and suffering, limit and loss, are a part of this reality, and to take away those hard human limits would be to take away our human lives, our shattering, struggling, beautiful, painful lives. It is the hardest truth, but it is the truth in which we are created.

But we are also created in and through love. Jesus may seem to speak harshly here to the people of Nazareth, but he is the same person who wept by the grave of Lazarus. The word of God in human flesh also knew grief and anger and fear, and walks with us in these times. 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. God reaches down to say, “You are mine, I love you.” To say, “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 pain will be gone. But that we always live in the embrace of the Creator’s knowledge and care, 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. We are held, we are cherished. We are not abandoned. In life, in death, we are held. We will fail. We will fall. We will be as inadequate as Jeremiah felt himself to be. We will, sometimes, despair. But we are named, and those names are written on the palms of love’s hands. And love never ends.

It is no small thing, to be named. To be given a being which is ours and ours only, a particular life to live out which is essential, which is not lost, no matter how deep the hurt or how far the fall. There is nowhere we can go where the impossible love of God, which went down to the place of death for us, cannot find us.

And 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. The people of Nazareth didn’t get the healing they wanted for themselves and their relatives; instead, they became, or at least witnessed, a moment of radical healing of social divisions, Jesus’s bringing into community of the outcast, the unvalued, the unclean. And we, like them, are asked to be partners in the repair of the hurting world. If the healing is to happen, it must happen through us and with 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—persistently and loudly—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, fighting the forces of oppression, and working for change are parts of the necessary healing; although so is acknowledging our limits, our inability to fix and heal it all. Jeremiah himself did not actually overthrow nations, though he saw nations fall, and in the end he would be the one urging the scattered peoples to build and plant even in their exile, to seek the small good they could create in the wreckage.

And the call to healing may also mean realizing that the person next to you, in the street, in the church, is quietly suffering, and doing for them what you can. It may mean giving each other our attention and kindness, and that is not trivial, 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. It will not solve all the problems or make all things better. If Jesus could not heal everyone, we very certainly can’t. But we can heal, now and then, small moments of our times. We can make things better, not forever, but for a day, an hour, ten minutes—and those minutes matter eternally. We can create spaces for rescue, always temporary, fragile, impermanent, but infinitely important. By these small rescues, by each moment won back from chaos, the world is preserved.

The work of healing is broad and multiple, and its outlines are drawn in Paul’s well-known, perhaps 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 sometimes, 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, struggling with class divisions, and problems around gender, and just human personal squabbles, 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 setting aside our own desires for the sake of the needs and longings and simple selfhood of the other. We will probably never get very good at this, but it is part of what we must always be learning to do. To be patient, with each other, with ourselves, all of us damaged and damaging, all of us trying to heal.

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 just offered him in the wilderness—power, magic, adoration, domination. Everything except the stringent self-effacing discipline of love. And God withdraws to make space for us. To make space for us to do such work as we can, and to be forgiven, for all our failures, as infinitely as we need.

Breathe deeply, my dears. Be small and kind. Build and plant, as you can. Take the little partial visions which we have, the possible truth we see in a glass darkly, and go into the world, and make your own tiny space for love.