Year C Epiphany 4: God loves you, no exceptions

The title is from a billboard and bumper stickers put out by the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. It’s one of my favourites, the other being, “If you’re looking for a sign from God, here it is.”

Once upon a time, a boy was born, and he grew up in a regular-sized town, and the people who knew people knew him – the teachers and the coaches and the librarians, the grocers and the beat cops, his neighbours and the local pastor – they saw him grow up, they knew who he was, where he came from.

And as he grew older, he developed these incredible talents. He had a gift – no, he had gifts galore. His reputation spread around the region as someone who had the gleam of greatness. All spoke well of him, and they expected great things. And when he was at home, the people who’d watched him grow up said, “Hey, look, it’s our boy! Turned out ok, right?” And the people who hadn’t noticed him growing up, they had heard the rumours of greatness, too, and they sat up and paid attention and said, “Hey, look, he’s our boy! He’s one of us! We know his people, he knows our place. As he grows into greatness, he will take us with him; we will rise with him and become great because of him.”

And the boy, the young man by now, looked around him, and he said, “You know me. You’ve seen me grow up. You know that I will always come from here, from you. But there are other people out there, there are other places that fall under God’s plan for greatness. This isn’t the only place that can use my special talents, and you aren’t the only people I can love.”

“So I’ve made a decision: I’m taking my gifts to Miami.”

So ok, the comparison doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. There are some very subtle differences in the two stories. But still, at the beginning of today’s gospel, Jesus is golden; by the end, they are trying to throw him off a cliff. If we can remember the emotions that led to jersey-burning and other forms of effigy abuse that followed LeBron’s “Decision,” maybe we can gain a little more insight into what it was that made the Nazareth crowd so mad, and whether we are in danger from the same malady.

After all, as John Barton says,

“It is very hard to identify just what it was in Jesus’ teaching that was offensive enough to his contemporaries to get him executed, … but it almost certainly had something to do with this theme… If Jesus ‘came to his own home, and his own people received him not’ (John 1:11), it was above all because he refused to acknowledge that there were any creatures of God who were more his own people than others.”
(John Barton, Love Unknown(2nd edn, Oxford, SLG Press, 1999), pp. 9-10)

And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we all suffer a little bit with that Nazareth delusion. We would all like to think that we, or our family, or our way of thinking, or our lifestyle, or our nation, is the favourite child, the one that God secretly loves the best.

And here’s the thing: we’re right. In Jeremiah, God singles out a young man for special favour, but he is chosen not for his own sake but for the sake of his people and even of his people’s enemies. What is more, as we say the psalm, we each claim that exact special favour for ourselves. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” (Jeremiah 1:5) and in the Psalm we say, “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb; my praise is continually of you.” (Psalm 71:6)

But like Jeremiah, we are not chosen only for our own sake. We are chosen for one another, given as sisters and brothers to one another, for the sake of showing God’s love to one another, and to the world, love which is not bounded by tribal or trivial alliances, which is not sheltered from outsiders by turning inward, which is not choosy about its recipients; love which knows no exceptions.

The people of Nazareth thought that they had proof that Galilee was at last in for some special recognition, some royal redemption, a little bit of love. They were right, up to a point; God loved them enough to give them Jesus and share him with them as their son. But they were wrong in thinking that was all God had in mind, that they were all God had in mind when Jesus came to them.

Jesus reminded his people that they were chosen by God not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. Prophets were raised up in ancient Israel not only for their own sake, nor even only for the sake of the nation, but to show God’s love beyond their borders, to show that God’s love has no borders.

The church, we might add, was raised up in the wake of Jesus, to continue Jesus’ proclamation that God’s love has no borders, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the world at large.

The church has been blessed by God with the Sacraments that Jesus gave us by his Baptism and by his giving of himself, his Body and Blood, for the sake of the whole world. But he has told us to share them, making disciples of all nations, and he has warned us not to think that because we have been blessed, those blessings are ours to hoard like a miser. No, they are to be shared with the tax collectors and the sinners, with the outcasts and the unloved, with the others, especially those who are other than we are.

Here are two descriptions of how the church is living into that mission. The first is from a sociological study of life in modern America, called The Big Sort:

“American churches today are more culturally and politically segregated than our neighborhoods. This happened partially because we prefer to worship in like-minded congregations. But churches also are more homogeneous because ministers took what was learned nearly a century ago by Christian missionaries trying to overcome the caste system and language barriers in India … The strategy was as simple as like attracts like. The new and crowded megachurches were built on the most fundamental of human needs: finding safety within the tribe.”
(Bill Bishop, with Robert G. Cushing, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008, p. 159)

There is a lot of literature about church growth and how to achieve it that builds on this tribal tendency, that uses this assumption as a founding principle for an evangelistic movement, and it is definitely effective.

But here’s the other description, from novelist Michael Arditti, who was explaining why he chose to set a novel in, of all the villages available, a parish church:

“One of my aims in writing Easter was to paint a comprehensive social portrait of a kind that has largely disappeared from the contemporary novel. Nowhere but the church could I find an institution where all the different classes and racial and sexual groups stood (and sat and knelt) side by side.”
(Michael Arditti, Easter (London: Arcadia Books Ltd, 2000), from the Preface, p. viii)

I have to ask, not which portrait of the church today is more accurate, nor even which is more effective for church growth, but which one looks more like the kind of village that Jesus built up around him. Remember his dinners at the tax collectors’ homes, where scribes and Pharisees sat across the table from a Galilean carpenter and a few fishermen, and women of dodgy repute hung around the edges?

We have been blessed. We here in Euclid have been blessed to find one another, to find God together, to find a like-mindedness which is not dependent on education or age, on race or sexuality, on nationality nor even political affiliation, but on the understanding together that Jesus is Lord, that God has loved us from before we were born, that God calls us into being together.

Those blessings are not ours to hoard, and they are not ours to ration out to those we consider deserving, or helpful to us, or even to those we consider most needful. God’s love knows no exceptions: it is radically indiscriminate, irresponsibly inclusive.

Now we see only in part, but there is a fullness to God’s love which transcends our partiality, which Jesus demonstrated and called us out on, and the people were envious and resentful, but love is not. Love is patient, and kind. The people were angry, but love is not irritable, nor does it rejoice in wrongdoing, but it rejoices in the truth. Jesus’ radical, indiscriminate love nearly got him killed that day in Nazareth, but he continued to break boundaries and to reach beyond borders, because love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Eventually, of course, this radical, indiscriminate, exceptional love did get him killed. But even that didn’t stop him, because love, God’s love, Christ’s love, never ends.

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