Saturday, February 02, 2013

It's Not All About Us: Reflections for Epiphany 4, Year C (Updated)

I am not what one would call a movie buff. I can appreciate a fine plot or a fine soundtrack or an actor’s great performance or fine cinematography. But, I’m not a buff, one who looks at movies both for entertainment and to analyze.  Still, there are some movies that I remember, even after many years. One that came to mind as I was preparing this sermon was “After the Fox,” starring Peter Sellers and Victor Mature.

“After the Fox” came out in 1966. It was, in its way, a great vehicle for Peter Sellers because it allowed him to play multiple roles in the same movie. One of his strengths was his capacity to mold his performance, even to mold himself, to present as different persons.

“After the Fox” was a caper movie. Sellers played a master thief with a talent for acting and disguise who escaped from prison and agreed to help smuggle a shipment of gold bars from Egypt into Italy. The hard part was getting it off the ship onto Italian soil and into a truck to be hauled away. So, Sellers came to a small Italian fishing village. He presented himself as an Italian film director, looking for a location to film an important scene. He had even convinced a retired American actor, played by Victor Mature, to take the male lead role; and that helped convince the leaders and citizens of this fishing village that this was their great opportunity.

So, the location and virtually the whole town become part of this movie to be shot by the fake director. And what was to happen in the specific scene? Why, a freighter would arrive and the citizens of a small Italian fishing village would help land a shipment of gold bars and load them into a truck. And so it happened. With great enthusiasm the whole town turned out, gathered around the American star. The fake director called “Action,” and everyone took part in welcoming the boats, and moving the gold bars, hand to hand, into the truck. When it was over, and the “director” drove away, they were all so excited, looking forward to great benefits from this shining moment. It was not until the entire town was hauled into court and charged as accomplices to smuggling that they realized they’d been taken.

And you want to wonder how they were deceived. Some stranger came into town, promising great things, and they fell for it – and not just as individuals, but as a whole community, led by their officials. But, we know how they were deceived. They wanted to feel unique, to feel special; and this stranger did just that. He told them that their town was special, particularly good for his movie scene. He told them that they were special, offering a unique reality to his false movie. They wanted to believe, and they came to believe that their association with this “director,” this “movie,” would confirm and demonstrate just how special they were.

Jesus had just finished reading in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home congregation. He had read, as we heard last week, of the call to proclaim the year of God’s favor, with the implication that he was responding to that call and making that proclamation. He finished with the comment, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And note that the congregation liked what they were hearing: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

But, there’s something in how they’re hearing him that makes Jesus concerned, even angry. “Some of you will say, ‘Physician, heal thyself!’ Others will say, ‘When do we get to see what we hear you’ve shown others?’” Jesus seems to be addressing two different issues here, but I think they have one root. Some need him to prove himself before they’ll accept him. Some want the benefits – the healings, the miracles – that Jesus has done in other places. But beneath both thoughts is this: “This is our local boy. Who he is and what he has to offer is really ours because he came from us, and we knew him before he got famous.” Suddenly, it’s not about Jesus, much less about what God is doing. Suddenly, it’s all about them. Jesus came from them, and that makes them special.

And Jesus has to disabuse them of that notion. “There were many widows when God’s people Israel suffered a great famine, but God sent Elijah to a widow in Sidon to find support. And God’s people Israel had more than their share of lepers, but it was Naaman from Syria who was cured.” Jesus’ message to his synagogue, to his hometown was this: “This isn’t about you being special. God is quite ready to act without you being special.”

They didn’t want to hear that, and perhaps especially from him. So, they tried to run him out of town, if not on a rail, then over a cliff. He just passed through them and walked away. But they made it clear that they didn’t want to hear that they weren’t special – special to him or special to God.

We have to sympathize with them. None of us likes to hear that we aren’t special. We don’t like to hear it as individuals, and we don’t like to hear it as communities. Indeed, it is part of what can form us as a community: that sense of sharing with one another some sense of being special. Part of what formed this community was that sense of being part of God’s Chosen People – remember, this started in the synagogue. Remember not that many weeks ago in Advent when we heard John? “Don’t tell me that you have Abraham as an ancestor. If God wants, God can raise up descendents for Abraham from the rocks at your feet.” It sounds like there were folks in the Jewish community who held themselves apart, believing that God would treat them differently, and that folks around them should treat them differently, because they could claim a place among God’s chosen people.

Now, before we focus on First Century Jews and imagine that this problem is long ago and far away, let me tell you a story. When I was first out of seminary I spent a summer as lay minister in charge of a small congregation in a small southern town. They saw themselves as different in their community because they believed they were free in Christ. Specifically, they were Episcopalians, and could openly and publicly drink alcohol. They could not only do it in their homes, but at church events; and oh, the sense of superiority they took from that. Now, in and of itself, that sounds pretty common. This congregation, though, carried it farther. Each household in this small congregation had its signature drink, and if that family hosted the event they provided their signature drink – often in quantity. They had taken their freedom in Christ, and stepped beyond simply enjoying it to making it the public distinction – almost making it into an idol.

It’s all too easy to find something to make us feel special, both as individuals and in groups. If we can attribute that specialness to God, so much the better. It binds us powerfully, with bonds that seem beyond challenge. But when we glory in our own specialness, we can stop looking for God and end up looking at ourselves. We come to identify with our specialness, and it becomes all we care about. And so we stop looking for God, and we stop discovering what God is doing in the world around us. When we forget that it isn’t all about us, we miss what God is doing with anyone – with everyone else. We forget that our God is not just our God, but is God for all creation and every creature in it.

One commentator I heard this week, quoting another scholar, made the comment, “When Jesus draws a line in the sand, he is always on the other side of it – and he’s usually calling us over.” Jesus confronted his neighbors with the truth that God’s plan wasn’t all about them. Jesus continues to confront us with the truth that God’s plan isn’t all about us. God’s plan is about what God has done, is doing, and will do in creation – in all of creation. If we’re caught up in our own specialness, even a belief in a special relationship with God, we won’t be looking across those lines; and we won’t see where God is working, and where God is calling us. We need, instead, to look at Jesus, and to see with Jesus and in Jesus the many places where God is working even now – many places that are beyond what we expect. If we’ll look, we’ll discover that God is working and leading us to work in circumstances and with people that we would never have imagined. We may be shocked or we may be thrilled to discover how God is working in the world; but we won’t see it at all unless we remember that it’s not all about us.

Addendum: If you'd like to hear how this sounded when it was actually preached, you can access the recording here. Look for Sermon 55, February 3, 2013.

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