Just who does Jesus think he is, anyway?
That, my friends, is the question asked by everyone in the Temple who heard the sermon he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth.
The home town boy was doing well. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth. They said, ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?”
I’m sure some of them said things like, “Isn’t this the kid who came to us in swaddling clothes and was born in a manger?” And, “I knew him when he was in diapers!”
Some were probably thinking, “Hey, I heard he turned water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. Wonder what miracle we can get him to perform here? This could be really big here in the East Podunk, Nazareth in Bethlehem in Judea.”
Jesus was already ten steps ahead of them. He reminded them of God’s favor to the widow at Zaraphath in Sidon and the healing of the leper Naaman, the Syrian.
Here’s the good news he proclaimed: widows and lepers are the recipients of God’s favor, or, as the liberation theologians name it, God has a “preferential option for the poor.”
This should not have come as any great surprise. He had just read to them the passage from Isaiah about bringing “good news to the poor,” and “release to the captives” and recovery of sight to the blind.” He was proclaiming the Year of the Jubilee - the “Year of the Lord’s Favor.”
In so doing, he informed them that there would be no magic show, no ‘insider trading deals’, no special treatment for the good citizens of Nazareth. The synagogue was not like being a member of “American Express” where “membership has its privileges.” Indeed, neither is the Realm of God.
Well! Just who, exactly, does Jesus think he is?
As we say in my profession, “Now he’s quit preaching and gone on to meddling.”
When the crowd heard all this, all of them 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.”
Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, once voted one of the Top Ten preachers in America, was once asked when and where she sees Jesus in our world today. Without missing a beat, she said, “I see Jesus whenever someone speaks the truth with such clarity it makes me want to kill him.”
Clearly, being a preacher comes with its own set of difficulties, but none so perilous as preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. I mean, it’s a pretty audacious thing to get into a pulpit and preach a sermon.
Each week I pour over the scriptures, understanding the context in which they were given, applying them to the context in which we find ourselves today, searching for deeper meaning.
I pray. A lot. I have learned that there is greater efficacy in the silent, patient listening part of prayer than there is in constant pleading and harassing and haranguing God for ‘a word of knowledge’ to preach to you.
I mean, just who do I think I am? And so it was, this week, as I wrote this sermon in the midst of preparing for Diocesan Convention Friday and Saturday as well as our own Annual Meeting later this morning.
The Good News from Jesus is always good, but the news from the Body of Christ can be pretty bad – especially when we, like those who heard the first sermon of Jesus, start to believe our own press releases about ourselves, rather that the truth of what God knows about us – and, in our heart of hearts, we know about ourselves.
Just who do we think we are, as the Diocese of Newark?
That was the question that lingered in the air during Convention. I have always maintained that the budget of any Christian church or organization is the best statement of the theology of that church or organization – better than the mission statement or logo or anything anyone might say about who we think we are.
There were lots of controversial elements to the diocesan budget which represented a very serious shift in the theology we have always held about ourselves as a diocese. These shifts were made manifest in specific line items in the budget - on both the income and expense sides of the ledger.
Now, all of it might well make perfect business sense - indeed, I'm sure it did - but there hadn't been a whole lot of diocesan-wide discussion about them during the actual budget process.
When did this shift happen? Who allowed it? Who do we think we are? Who do we allow to define who we think – or say – we are? It’s one thing to say, “Money follows mission” – which I believe. It’s another to make a profit off mission. What kind of theology is that? Just who do we think we are?
You may be asking the same questions when the proposed budget for this church is revealed later this morning. There have been some serious programmatic cuts – some serious reductions in some staff positions and some consolidation in others.
What does this say about who we think we are? Have we been living into an illusion? Did what we think we know about ourselves become a false idol? Or, is it still true, so we have to think of new, creative ways to be true to our identity and what we know of our authentic vocation as a unique Body of Christ?
Just who do we think we are?
Here’s the real gospel question: Just who do you think you are?
As I pondered this question, I remembered something Nelson Mandela said in one of his first speeches to the newly constituted South African government.
This is a man who spent forty years of his life behind bars because he believed Apartheid was an Evil that had to be overthrown. The South African government, however, believed him to be an Evil that must be incarcerated as a danger to society. Who do you think you are, Mandela?
Actually, Nelson Mandela quoted something Marianne Williams wrote, and he was using it in a very, very different context than our own. Nevertheless, I think these are words we need to take into our Annual Meeting with us. These are words I wish I had said at our diocesan convention.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us. It’s in every one of us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."These words are an echo of the magnificent words St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about love.
It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Admitting the truth about yourself is always difficult. As difficult as it is to tell the truth about your shortcomings and failures, I think it's even harder to tell the truth about your gifts and graces.
These are words I think Jesus was saying in response to the crowd asking, ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’
It’s not so much who you think you are or who others say you are but what God knows you to be. It’s not about the miracles God can perform for you as the miracles you can perform for God.
These are words I think we all need to hear any time, but especially when faced with challenges that sometimes feel daunting.
These are words that are appropriate in the Season of Epiphany – the season of Light – the season of God in humankind made manifest – the season of the divine spark in each one of us.
We were meant to shine.
Why don’t we?
Just who do you think you are, anyway?