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Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Sermon for Epiphany III

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”Luke 4:21-30
Epiphany IV – January 28, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Well, now we know. Eventually, the pieces of the story are woven together and we get to see the entire scriptural picture.

Remember two weeks ago? Remember our Senior Warden, Jim’s Mollo’s sermon on the story of the Wedding at Cana? Remember how sassy Jesus was with his mother? Jim’s mother and my mother must have graduated from the same parenting class. Had I spoken to my mother that way, calling her ‘Woman,’ I would have been beaten into next week. (Actually, her threat was, “I’ll beat some sense into you.” Which makes great sense, eh?)

Remember the response Jesus gave to his mother when she asked him to get more wine? “Woman, my time has not yet come.”

Now we know. Now we understand his hesitancy in making public the divinity of his humanity. Now the pieces fit.

The people of the town have just heard Jesus read scripture in the Temple. You may recall that: Galileans, in their day, were not allowed read scripture publicly. Galilee was considered a ‘backwater’ – a hick town – and the people there spoke with a distinctive accent.

I suppose we might compare it to the accent of someone from the Ozarks or Appalachia. Here comes Jesus, Joseph’s son – someone everybody knew from birth – reading from the Torah and “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

Imagine that! A Galilean who can actually read publicly and sound gracious!

(Hey, isn’t that Joseph’s kid?!?)

Jesus is onto them. He tells them that he expects them to ask for something more. We all know this dynamic, don’t we? Who among us doesn’t cringe to recall a long-ago memory, hearing one of our parents say, “Go ahead, dance for Grandma. Play the piano for your Aunt Ruth. Sing that song you learned in class the other day for my garden club.”

Jesus, anticipating this, reminds them that Elijah cared for the widow Zarephath in Sidon even though everyone was affected by the famine. And, even though there were many lepers in Israel, Elisha cleansed only Naaman the Syrian.

Jesus is not about to ‘perform.’ That’s simply not how it works with the miracles of God. Moreover, it is simply not good leadership. I have heard it said that a good leader will take you where you want to go. A great leader, however, will take you places you’ve never dreamed you would go. Jesus isn’t going to just do a “miracle on demand.” He’s got greater lessons to teach.

Which gets EVERYONE enraged. I mean, if he’s not the carpenter’s son, carrying on his father’s trade, and he’s going to do something really different, then show us what you CAN do. When Jesus won’t, the people get so angry that 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.”

So, we get it now. This is why Jesus was so hesitant to declare the start of his ministry. This is why he told his mother, “My time has not yet come.” Jesus knew the cost of this all too well.

Whenever I read this story, I’m reminded of the story my grandmother often told about how and why she came to America. She was the youngest and the only daughter of a family with seven sons. When she was 13 years old, her mother died and, even in her grief, she could read the handwriting on the wall. As the only girl, she would have to stay at home and care for her father and her brothers. That would be her life. Until, of course, she married a man and became his wife and cared for their children.

Still, if that were her lot in life, she’d rather have it be her own. So, she feigned exhaustion from her grief and convinced her father’s sister to have her sent away to America to visit relatives – just for a visit. A couple of months. Just to get her bearings. Earn a wee bit of money and then return home to care for her father and brothers.

Except, at age 15, she married my grandfather and together, they had 22 children, raising 15 to adulthood. My grandmother reports that her father and brothers were so angry at her for not returning home that they never forgave her. Indeed, she was never allowed to return to her native land of Portugal, and never saw her father or brothers again.

There was much more to that story she never told, but the fullness of her untold story haunted her. A look of sadness would come into her eyes that almost broke your heart. There was no denying that her heart – and something in her spirit – was broken by whatever had happened to her in her decision to declare her independence and start her life on the path of her own choosing.

I suppose this is why, in the mid-1950’s she made certain to sit me down and show me a pictorial essay in LIFE Magazine. It was about the Red Foxes of Holmes, County Ohio which first appeared in 1944. She had saved the magazine which contained that pictorial essay. She had carefully wrapped it in tissue paper and then in wax paper, placing it in the bottom of her dresser drawer, preserving it as an opportunity to teach her children and grandchildren a hard lesson about human nature which she had learned.

It has come to be, for me, a modern parable.

It appears that the good people of Holmes County, Ohio, hated the Red Foxes that lived in the corn fields of their county. They hated them because they thought they were the ones who were killing their sheep and their pigs. What they didn’t know was that the Red Fox only eats rodents, rabbits, insects and fruit – but mostly, very small prey - not sheep or pigs.

Ironically, it was their predatory expertise, not doubt, which kept the population of the field mice from raiding their granaries or from getting into the farm house cupboards.

No matter. The good people of Holmes County, Ohio, needed to feel that they were doing something to rid themselves of the threat of the Red Foxes. In folklore, the Red Fox is often a wily villain who triumphs over those who would attempt to control or destroy it. In the Uncle Remus folktales, Br’er Fox is a fictional character who is often outwitted by Br’er Rabbit.

So, in the Spring of every year the good people of Holmes County, wanting, I suppose, to feel better about themselves by outwitting the Red Fox, would gather at the edge of the corn field – men and women, their children and grandchildren (to teach them well) – where they knew the Red Fox had their boroughs.

They would begin to beat spoons and ladles onto the backs of the pots and pans they had brought from their kitchens, making a terrible noise to frighten the Red Foxes out of their underground homes.

The Red Foxes would emerge from their boroughs, frightened and scared, and run into the middle of the circle of humans, which would grow smaller and smaller, tighter and tighter, until they were all huddled together with no place else left to go.

Some, out of fear, snarled at the humans around them. Others, out of an uncanny but senseless appeal to the humanity of their captors, tried to lick the hands of those who cornered them. It did no good. Because the good people of Holmes County, Ohio, had a job to do.

At the command of one of the town leaders, they would beat those Red Foxes – beat the mothers and the fathers and the baby Red Foxes – senseless, until they were beaten unconscious and died.

Of course, the killing of the sheep and chickens would go on. Everyone knew that it was the coyotes who were the culprit. But, killing the coyotes took skill – something the good people of Holmes County did not have.

It was much easier to kill the Red Foxes and feel as if they had done something to protect themselves. The pictorial essay in that 1944 issue of Life Magazine reported that they did this every year.

My grandmother showed me this photo essay and said, “People can be mean and cruel. They can be very mistaken about you, and blame you for things that you would never in a million years even consider doing. Still, they will hunt you down and try to kill you – or your spirit. Don’t let them. Be true to who you are. Be what God made you. Be what God wants you to be – not what other people think you are.”

I have seen this happen in families. You have too. I have seen families cut off a sibling or an adult child because a marriage – predicted from the outset to be troubled – finally ended in failure. Or, I’ve seen families cut off and banish another family member who was addicted to alcohol or drugs. Or, a son or daughter who was gay. Or, a child who did not do well at college. Or, who took a path in life that was not part of the parent’s plan for them. Or, a child who did as his parents asked and grew up to be a most unhappy – indeed, miserable – adult.

We’ve seen this on the national and international level as well. We’ve seen it in Palestine and Israel with the Hamas and the Hezbullah. In Afghanistani tension between the Kurds and the Christians. In Iraq between the Shiite and the Sunni’s. In Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics. In Rwanda between the Tutsi and the Hutu. In the genocide in Dufar in the Sudan. And, ‘lest we forget, in the prison cells of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay..

Last week, Jim Mollo, inspired by the Gospel and by the words of Desmond Tutu, encouraged us to be who we are. To be who God made us to be. Today’s lessons continue that theme. The first lesson was from the Prophet Jeremiah.

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God says to him; “and before you were born I consecrated you.” Jeremiah responds, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am a boy.” And God says, “Do not be afraid.”

Paul’s eloquent letter to the Church in Corinth reminds us that port of the rite of passage into adulthood is to make a choose. Choose faith. Choose hope. But, most importantly, choose love.

Today’s gospel lesson is a reminder – a frighteningly stark reminder – that integrity and authenticity come at a very high cost. Jeremiah, even as a young boy, knew it. Jesus, in his time, knew it too. And, in our time, so do we. It happens when all the pieces of the story of our life fit together. When we know it is our time. When we understand that we only have one life and it is our life, anyway, and the time has come to put that belief into action.

Sadly, what happened to Jesus happens to many of us, too. We know this. We know this well. So, some of us compromise. Some sell ourselves short. We tell ourselves little lies that haunt us and break our hearts – and, eventually, our wills. This led Henry David Thoreau to say, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

Which probably led him to say, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

There are also many of us who have taken that different step to the different drummer. Believe it or not, we are called Christian. Yes, Christian. Being a Christian makes you a decidedly counter-cultural person. Let’s be honest: that’s a bit of a difficult pill for most Episcopalians to swallow, isn’t it?

Yesterday, as part of the service of ordination and consecration of Mark Beckwith as the 10th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, we were treated to the reading of excerpts of MLK’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail which was read by Newark Mayor, Corey Booker.

I was reminded of the quote in which Dr. King says that the church has become a thermometer for society, giving us indications of how to conform to the cultural climate. He asked, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” Dr. King said that rather than be a thermometer, the church needs to be a thermostat for our culture, our nation, our world, turning up the heat, when necessary, to meet the challenge of the struggle for freedom and an end to war and torture, poverty and hunger, epidemic and oppression.

Yet, this very act puts us outside the culture. It gives us an identity that will engender such hatred that some will want to run us out of town, hurling us headlong over a cliff, or, like the Red Foxes who are perceived as a threat, circle us up and beat our spirit to death.

Like Jesus, we know what it means to sit in church, listening to the call of the prophets. And, some of us know, deep in our places of knowing, that if we actually acted upon those words, what might happen. And, it makes us very afraid. So we do nothing.

Poet William Blake once said, “All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men – good people – to do nothing.” That is true on a personal level, as well as in our families, our neighborhoods, our churches, our nation and the world.

Yesterday, at the end of the service of consecration of our new bishop, Mark Beckwith, gave a very powerful benediction. I suspect we’ll be hearing it at the end of every service we share with him. It is one I wish to leave with you today as inspiration and hope,

“May God give you the grace to never sell yourself short; grace to risk something big for something good; grace to remember that the world is too dangerous now for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love. And the blessing of God Almighty – the God who creates us, the Son who sets us free, and the Spirit who promises to be with us – even to the end of the age, be with us all evermore.”

1 comment:

Weiwen Ng said...

thank you, that was sad and beautiful.