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The Way God Sees the Problem

The Way God Sees the Problem

Feb 03, 2019

Passage: Luke 4:21-30

Preacher: The Reverend Andrew Van Kirk


My brother grew up playing pickup football in the park with Matthew Stafford, quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Grant, my brother, remembers this. I remember it. You know who does not remember it? Matthew Stafford.

I didn’t go to school with any NFL players — but I did have a classmate who has written comedy videos with Will Ferrell and Michelle Obama.

I bet you have things like this in your life too. You went to the same high school as some musician or professional athlete. Or maybe it’s something from where you grew up. The way my best friend’s wife, who is from Brenham Texas, claims Blue Bell Ice Cream (also from Brenham) as her own, you’d think she milked the cows herself.

The people of Nazareth, you know — they were from the same town as Jesus. He was a pretty big deal.

Knowing where someone or something is from is a shorthand way of claiming where that person or thing belongs. When good things come into the world, success, fame, wealth — even if it’s not directly ours, we want to claim a little piece of it. Associate ourselves with it. We stake our shared past, our shared identity, to what is blessing the world. We hope that some of that greatness, like glitter, rubs off on us, that we can somehow claim a little of it as our own.

And this dynamic works in reverse too. The flip side of wanting to attach ourselves to whatever seems accomplished is that we want those accomplishments — those successes, those benefits — to come to those people and places to which we are attached. To us.

When we have a president from Texas, we think Texas should get special treatment. When we find out that the doctor we’re seeing went to the same college, then we expect that we’ll rise above the common patient; we’ll get a little special attention and care. When we’re interviewing for a job and we find out the hiring manager was in the same sorority, we trust that gives us a leg up.

When the Messiah shows up and he turns out to be from our neck of the woods, we’d probably expect to get extra special divine blessing.

And here’s the rub. If we got to the end of that Gospel reading and you weren’t quite sure how Jesus nearly ended up getting himself thrown off a cliff, here, let me help you: It’s because he stood up in front of the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, among all the people ‘like him,’ and said this: ‘Hey, I know y’all are really excited to see me, but. There were many widows in America in the time of Elijah, when it didn’t rain for over three years and everyone was starving to death, Elijah was sent to a widow in Mexico. And there were many lepers in America at the time of Elisha, none of them were cleansed though; Elisha only cleansed Namaan the Russian.’

That’s why Jesus almost died on his first day preaching.

Rookie mistake, right?

This thing about where God’s blessings end up, and to whom they properly belong, this is a hard thing for us human beings to get right. We like to keep God’s blessings close; in the family, in the tribe. I don’t mind God blessing everyone else; I really don’t. But I’d like it if it were me first. My family first. Us first. America first.

Think about the gospel passage (not my paraphrase, the actual passage). This scene, Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth, is in all the synoptic gospels — Matthew tells it, Mark tells it, Luke tells it. And they emphasize different parts of the story — because people didn’t have just one problem with Jesus, people had problems with Jesus.

But here in Luke, the stress is on the way Jesus frames his ministry, the way he talks about those to whom he was sent. He does so by referencing Old Testament stories, one of Elijah, one of Elisha, both stories where those prophets went and blessed people outside their home community, outside Israel.

The problem the people of Nazareth had with the widow Jesus mentioned and Naaman the general is that the widow was a Sidonian and Naaman was a Syrian. The problem God had with those two is that the woman was a widow, and Naaman was a leper.

In fairness to the good people Nazareth, much of the Old Testament is about God’s special treatment, God’s special election, of the people of Israel. They were the chosen ones. That’s Biblical truth. It’s also true that the ultimate goal of that election, the horizon of God’s promise, was the blessing of the whole world. Which was fine in principle. They could celebrate it even, in prophecy and song. But when Jesus came and announced this he was here to expand the scope of God’s blessing, to expand the covenant beyond the people of Israel, that wasn’t cool.

Toddlers teach us here. They don’t get anxious hearing about sharing from the teacher. They get anxious when somebody else wants to play with their dump truck.

Maybe it’s some dark artifact of our tribal past. We are not concerned about all the world equally. We’re most concerned about the people who are like us in some identifiable way, who are from the same place, have the same background, look like us, sound like us, think like us.

We human beings, all of us, we love unequally. God loves us equally. And this dynamic, if we’re not careful, sets us up to work against God.

I’m not sure there is a more dangerous tendency in human heart, than to think of one another primarily as members of a group based on our origin or other innate characteristics. Sure, lust, money, pride have corrupted many an individual soul. But for some evil to truly be a match for God’s love of all humankind, to go toe to toe with God, that evil has to have a transcendent element. Nationalism, tribalism, identity politics — right or left — it has that transcendent element: the group. The group transcends the individual.

We must be gentle with one another, for this stuff is hard.
National identity is particularly tricky, for it is this part of us that is immensely important in our earthly life, an indeed living in America is one of the great blessings we all enjoy. At the same time, being American has very little purchase in the kingdom of heaven. The old phrase ‘for God and country’ keeps the terms separate, but reminds us how easy it is to conflate them.

Claiming to be Christian doesn’t prevent our worst impulses in this regard. Part of the great tragedy of Italy and Germany succumbing to fascism in the 1930’s leading up to World War II is that those countries were the homeland of Catholicism and Protestantism. Those were the centers of the Western Christian world, overwhelmed by tribal identity, anger, and violence. We should not look at those countries and say, “How could they?” We must look at them and say, “There but for the grace of God.”

If the people of Nazareth — Jesus neighbors, friends, and the people with whom he grew up — if they were willing to throw him off a cliff for the sake of tribe and nation — we could get there too. We could throw Jesus off the cliff yelling “America” at the top of our lungs.

I don’t talk often about how terrifying our current political situation is. Partly because I don’t want to get thrown off the cliff. I’m no Jesus. But partly because I can barely hold it in as it is; I don’t want to give it oxygen in my heart or in our common life. But it is terrifying to me the way we talk in groups — racial, national, religious, sure. But also gender, sexual orientation, and political affiliation.

The people we group together to make whatever point it is on our favorite cable news channel, those people are widows, cancer victims, depressed, lonely, fearful, divorced. This is true on both sides of the aisle, and on both sides of the border. There are a myriad of ways the monsters we imagine one another to be are actually but frail creatures in need of the transforming love of God.

As we struggle to face the issues in our own day, as we struggle to share the blessings God has given us in this country, as we fight and argue and debate one another, we can either treat the problem as one of Mexicans and Guatemalans and Syrians and Americans, or we can treat the problem as one of the sick, the lame, the persecuted, the oppressed, the violence stricken, the trafficked, the orphans. One of these ways of seeing things leads to the transforming love and grace of God. The other way of seeing things needs to throwing Jesus off a cliff.

This doesn’t bring a tidy set of answers to questions of border protection and asylum seeking. I don’t think one political party gets a monopoly on the eyes of God. But starting with the common humanity of the people affected is a good place to begin.

The love of Jesus Christ is to bring transformation, God-wrought change in human lives. But one thing God doesn’t change about us is where we’re from. I’ve laid hands on people and asked for healing from pain, from cancer, from mental illness. I’ve never laid hands on people and asked God to heal them from being from Tucson or Philadelphia. (In the latter case, it’s occurred to me, but that’s not how God works.) God doesn’t heal us from where we’re from, because that’s not something that’s wrong with us.

That’s why God sees widows not Sidonians, lepers not Syrians; children not illegals, refugees not Muslims. We’ve got to try to see the same thing. The Church of Christ must, as best we can, deal in categories that matter to God, like widows, lepers, children, and refugees — not Americans, Russians, Syrians.

Again, the questions remain vexed. But I am begging you to articulate your answers to policy in terms of the categories that matter to God.

The passage of scripture that got Jesus into this mess to begin with, the passage he stood up in the synagogue, read aloud, and then claimed, ‘this is what I’m about,’ it went like this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18).

He didn’t say ‘to bring good news just to poor from my hometown, to let the oppressed go free so long as they speak my language.’ God’s invited us to a great big world, to see it and to love it the way he does.

There’s a big crowd of people gathered at the edge of the cliff; but let us follow Jesus back down the hill and into the world of people described they way God sees them: the widows, the lepers, and those that desperately need the love of God.