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Christ is within us and within the world

Luke 4:21-32

January 24, 2016

Year C

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Fifteen years ago now, I attended a weekend retreat with about ten other people, where the opening exercise was to tell a story about someone who had been Christ for us in our lives. After we had all thought about it for a little while, some people got up to tell their stories to the whole group. There was one about a friend who stayed put through a long and difficult illness while everyone else deserted them. Another one, about a neighbour who took on the task of being a father to three boys, whose Dad had left. One after the other, there were stories of comfort, compassion and rescue. The conference room turned into a church, where we settled into each other’s company. We understood that the Christ, God, Spirit was in our midst; we understood embodiment theology, meaning that Christ is within us and within the world.

Then one woman who hadn’t spoken stood up said, “Well the first thing I thought about when I tried to think who had been Christ to me was, who in my life has told me the truth so clearly that I wanted to kill them for it?”

She burst our bubble, but she was onto something vitally important that most of us would be glad to forget: namely, that Christ is not only the one who comforts and rescues us. The Christ is also the one who challenges and upsets us, telling the truth so clearly, that we will do appalling things to make him be quiet. If you do not believe that, maybe it is because you have not recognised Christ in some of the offensive people God sent your way. Not all of them mind you, but some of them – people sent to make us sit up, take notice and upset our equilibrium, so we do not confuse our own ideas of God, with God.

I know whom to telephone when I need help and the people I call depend on what I want to hear. I have a long list of friends who tell me more-or-less what I want to hear and I have a very short list of friends who will tell me the bold truth.

The bold, perhaps the harsh truth almost always gets me to where I need to be more quickly than the other stuff. It is the unexpected comments that throw us off the most. The comments that make us feel as though we have lost our equilibrium and we just want to ignore it, but we know we cannot. It happens to me more often than I like.

The church is where some of us look for a smaller group of “
like-minded” people. I put that in quotes because we are as different as we can be. When I was working on my settlement charge in Northeastern Saskatchewan, a couple who visited there said that they were thinking of attending the United Church out of sheer curiosity. They said they knew people in a particular congregation that had members at either end of every conversation, or political issue in the country and they wanted to see for themselves, how we kept from becoming enemies.

I think most congregational members hold very different views and yet we mange to stay together. One answer, I think, is that we do not ask each other too many questions. For better, or worse, we concentrate on what we have in common instead of what separates us. For some people, this means keeping secrets about themselves. We learn what is safe to talk about and what isn’t. We learn the boundaries of the community, which are wide in some places and narrow in others.

Nevertheless, those of us who belong to the United Church have stuck together through a lot. In 1936 we were the first church to agree to ordain women. The Manual was amended and in 1936 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan we ordained Lydia Gruchy. She was the first woman to be ordained and she worked on the Kelvington/Lintlaw Pastoral Charge in rural Saskatchewan - the same place I was settled to.

We have worked at using inclusive language for more than 25 years, and we agreed that women need to have choice in the abortion debate. In 1988 at General council, we agreed to ordain gay and lesbian people and we have agreed a few years ago that people of the same sex can be married in our church. Through all of that, we come to church and we sit next to one another. Most of us have a secret list of people we would rather not sit next to, here or anywhere else. They may be specific people we can name, or they may be certain kinds of people, we know who they are. Some of them are on our list because we are snobs, but others are on our list because we believe they have done wrong, or to use religious language, because they have sinned. Into this mix, we quite often bring God whom we believe, doesn’t like certain people either.

It is this whole prickly matter of community, that Jesus threatens in his first sermon in Nazareth and it almost gets him killed. All speak well of him and they are amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth, until he begins to question their sense of community. They want him to do for them what he did for Capernaum, he belongs to them. They have a special claim on him which they expect him to honour by doing his best for them. So far as we know, he did nothing for them, but reminds them that God’s sense of community was bigger than theirs.

He offended them by telling them not one story, but two stories about how God had passed over them and their kind, in order to minister to strangers – first the widow from the wrong side of the tracks and then Naaman the Syrian, who was an officer in the army of Israel’s enemies. It was like telling them that God had become a Chaplain to the Conservative party, when they were all Liberals, or NDP, or that God had passed over a beloved Sunday School teacher in our church who was sick, in order to take care of a ailing parishioner in another denomination – one of the ones we don’t want to sit next to.

He was not telling them anything new. He was telling them things that were right there in their own scriptures, only that was not how they used the scripture. Instead, they used it to close ranks on outsiders, not to invite them in and they used it to attack Jesus. The minute he denied their special status, he went from favourite son to degenerate stranger, who offended them so badly, they decided to kill him.

That is how sensitive we are to being told that our enemies are God’s friends. That is how mad we get when someone suggests that God loves the people we don’t approve of – the people who offend and disturb us, but who belong to God just as surely as we do. No matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries. God keeps ploughing right through them, inviting us to follow, or get out of the way. The problem is, not that we are loved any less, the problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are, by a God, or a Spirit or a Divine presence, with an upsetting sense of community.

This past week I re-read bits and pieces of Parker Palmers book, The Company of Strangers (Quaker theologian who works at Berkley). Parker is counting on the church to renew public life in his country. For him, the word public, contains a vision of interdependence with one another. In public parks, public libraries and public schools, we come together as strangers, who agree to share common resources. We do not have to see eye to eye on everything. We do not even have to like each other. But in order for our public life to work, we do have to respect each other’s dignity as human beings, which is what we have in common and to act with honour among strangers as well as friends.

If you and I are walking toward each other on a public sidewalk, our differences do not matter. We make room for each other. We may even nod and say hello. Our community at that point does not depend on our being in agreement with each other about anything, except that we will share the sidewalk, where we both belong.

Parker talks about all the ways public life has broken down in his country and I suspect our country too, largely because we have begun – for good and bad reasons – to regard strangers as enemies. In a world that grows scarier every day, many people have retreated to well defended private lives. Often, we sort ourselves out into groups, who are suspicious of other groups and often now, we go to war with one another, either overtly, or covertly. The strangers we meet must either be kept out of our lives, or made like us. This always wreaks havoc with our public life.

As the United Church we understand all too well what this means as we continue to mend and heal from our experience with residential schools. The church is not immune to this sort of thing, but we know better. We believe better. We know about Naaman the Syrian and the widow of Zarephath. We know about Jesus himself, who preferred the company of misfits to that of religious people. We believe in a Jesus who cares for the stranger and who comes to us as a stranger, reminding us over and over again, that although he is with us, he does not belong to us.

In the church we are challenged to believe that it is the Spirit manifest in the Body of Christ, the church, who makes us a community and not we ourselves alone. We believe that our differences are what God uses for opening us up to the truth that is bigger than we are.

The truth is always bigger than any of us can grasp all by ourselves. It takes a world full of strangers and friends to tell us the parts we cannot see, and sometimes we want to kill them for it. We want to hurl them over the cliff. Jesus’ own people tried to kill him more than once. In today’s reading they want to hurl him over the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his own way.

How did he do that, when they were all ganged up against him?

I do not know, but that is how it still works. If we will not listen, he won’t try to change our minds. He will pass right through our midst and go on his way.
Sharon Ferguson-Hood