4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Luke 4:21-30;
1 Cor 13:1-13; Jer 1:4-10
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/rysN8OtP43g?t=685
UNDOING US-VS-THEM: A NEW KIND OF STORY
How did Jesus’ hometown crowd go so quickly from “All spoke well of him and were amazed” to trying to run him off of a cliff?! Quite a change! In seeking an answer, there’s one cliff we need to be very careful to avoid ourselves: namely, making a big deal of the fact that they were Jews. Believe me, it’s happened far too often in Christian history, part of the ugly history of anti-Semitism and Christian violence against Jews — that’s still well-alive today. In fact, to blame Jesus’ neighbors because they’re Jews is to take away the exact opposite point from this story that we should be.
Let me begin, once again, with the revitalized Gospel message we’ve been talking about. One of the key ways we’ve been summing it up is that God is creating one new humanity in place of all our typical human divisiveness (see Eph 2:14-15). We can see this in how Jesus is challenging his hometown folks. You might remember from last week that we left off in the middle of the story. When this week we begin with Jesus saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” we have to recall from last week that Jesus had just read from the prophet Isaiah about good news to the poor and oppressed, the captive and the blind. This week, we see the initial response of Jesus’ neighbors. It’s very positive! After all, they are generally poor and oppressed. They’re marginalized people in the mighty Roman Empire. Their imagination is no doubt fired up to envision Jesus leading them in a successful revolt in which they, the good guys, would be lifted up, and the Romans, the bad guys, would get what’s coming to them. It’s potentially the age-old story of the downtrodden good guys winning in the end, so that the bad guys finally get their just desserts.
We love that story, too, right? It’s the basic plot of all our favorite books and movies. I’m old enough to have seen the first Star Wars movie in the theater back in 1977. It opens with words crawling across the screen:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . . . It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have just won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, rebel spies have managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR. . . .
Then, for the next two hours we increasingly get behind the rebels, the good guys, until they blow up the Death Star, and the audience goes wild with applause. I remember: we did all cheer.
Now imagine if this is real life. The Jews have been downtrodden for centuries, under numerous empires. The latest one, the Roman Empire, is the worst. The Jews crave a hero or two who will help them turn the tables. Jesus proclaims himself the fulfillment of good news for the downtrodden, and it raises your expectations. But suddenly, he goes off-script. He talks about the prophets Elijah and Elisha helping outsiders. Naaman, the foreigner whom Elisha helps, is even an enemy commander. Now, you’re angry, if you’re the hometown crowd there that day. This isn’t the way the story is supposed to go.
Christians have often blamed the Jews in this story, but that only proves Jesus’ point that we human beings — all of us — have this fatal tendency to be stuck in Us-vs-Them-thinking. Jesus is trying to challenge his hometown folks — and us — to let go of that thinking, and they turn on him. Christians throughout our history have heard this story and had the tendency to blame the Jews — thus proving that we’re stuck in that same Us-vs-Them-thinking, too.
It requires constantly being aware of the end of the Luke’s Gospel story to begin to break us free of this thinking. Jesus slips away from his hometown crowd here in chapter 4, but in chapter 23 he will let himself become the scapegoat, for both the Jews and the Romans. It’s only in Luke’s Gospel that we hear about Pilate the Roman and Herod the Jew becoming friends — united by a common enemy, a scapegoat. In essence, Jesus lets himself become the scapegoat for all of humanity, so that on Easter morning we can begin to write a different kind of story, one that not only begins to let go of Us-vs-Them-thinking but to understand how that thinking keeps the human family forever divided. We can understand how Jesus is basically saving us from being trapped in that age-old storyline which has caused so much bloodshed throughout our history. Raised on Easter morning as the forgiving victim of our violence, Jesus helps us to begin to write a new kind of story, one in which God is guiding us to create one new humanity in place of all our divisions. There is no longer Us and Them; there is only Us.
So how do we do that? Two thousand years later, when we look around us, it seems to be just so much of the same ol’ story. Here’s the first thing of great importance that we need to keep in mind: the way of forgiveness and love is bound to take a long time. Why? St. Paul tells us in his magnificent ode to love in today’s Second Reading. “Love is patient. Love is kind. . . . Love does not insist on its own way.” Think especially about that last one. Human beings, when we are trapped in our Us-vs-Them-thinking, we think of power as being able to control Them. Power, for us, is precisely being able to insist on our way of doing things. Just look at our politics right now.
But in Jesus Christ we learn that God is love. We could read Paul’s words with the word God substituted for the word love. “God is patient. God is kind. God does not insist on God’s own way.” Love, and God, is a completely different kind of power, one that works much more slowly because it never uses force to insist on its own way. God has a different way for us to write our human stories, one that replaces our Us-vs-Them-thinking with seeing each and every person as a brother or sister in God’s family. But God as love does not insist on that new way. Love never forces itself. Love always allows for freedom. So the power of love can only continue to sacrifice itself to our bloody plot-lines until more and more of us finally begin to choose the new story.
And here’s the good news: God’s new story is in our world and gradually beginning to take seed. Yes, as in Jesus’ own Parable of the Sower, there’s still plenty of unproductive soil out there, but if you know where to look you can see the places where the seed is planted and beginning to yield fruit. So I’d like to finish this morning with two examples of God’s new plot-line. One is fiction and one is real life.
The first is a secular movie which came as a pleasant surprise to me the first time I saw it. I have five boys, so I’ve watched plenty of Marvel and DC comics movies with them. They’re fun. They even sometimes challenge the boundaries of conventional good guy/bad guy plotlines. But one of them, X-Men: Days of Future Past, actually crosses over the boundary into the other kind of story, the one that has a plotline which follows more closely the Passion of Jesus. I’ll need to first briefly set the scene for those of you who aren’t familiar with X-men stories. (First, we might note that it is exclusive language: the X-men are both men and women.)
The X-men are human beings who are born with mutations that give them special powers. The first several X-men movies, which came out in the early 2000’s (e.g., the first one, X-Men, came out right in 2000, starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen), take place in those contemporary times of the early 2000’s. Then, the producers wanted to go back in time and show the earlier history of many of those same X-men (e.g., X-Men: First Class in 2011). But that meant hiring a new bunch of younger actors to play earlier versions of the same characters (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender playing the characters formerly played by Stewart and McKellen). So now we get to X-men: Days of Future Past (2014), which is the sixth in the series of movies and the one that uses both casts of actors, because it is telling the story of the X-men in two different time frames. The older cast of X-men represent the present day (2014) and are under serious attack by the rest of the human race. All the other nations are able to unite because they’ve found a common enemy: the X-men, who are called mutants — not really human. It’s the epitome of Us-vs-Them-thinking — almost the whole world united against an enemy who they consider to not be human. And the non-mutated human beings are winning. They have created deadly robots, the Sentinels, to seek out and destroy all the X-men. The only hope the X-men can devise is to go back in history and try to change it at the point that things went wrong — back to the early 1970’s (thus using the younger cast of actors) when the person who creates the Sentinel robots convinces all the world leaders to band together against the X-men. Well, using the special powers of two of the X-men in the present day, they are able to send one of the X-men back forty years to try to change history. The movie keeps going back and forth between the two time periods. We see the later X-men in 2014 on the verge of being stamped out by the Sentinels . . . until one of the younger X-men in 1970, due to the influence of the one who’s gone back in time (“Wolverine”), does something extraordinary.
It’s about 1970, and so it’s Richard Nixon who has gathered world leaders together to deal with the X-men threat. One of the X-men has become very militant (“Magneto”) and proceeds to use force to try to stop them. But at the crucial moment as he’s trying to kill Nixon, one of the other X-men — Raven, played by Jennifer Lawrence — steps in front and literally takes the bullet meant for Nixon. She sacrifices herself to try to stop the violence. The last scene in the movie shifts back into back into the future of the present day, from 1970 to 2014. There’s suddenly no more sentinels. No more scenes of the X-men desperately trying to survive against the powerful robots. Instead, the X-men are all together in their special school, living in peace. In other words, history has changed. Raven’s self-sacrifice against the violence back in 1970 has literally changed history so that the reality in 2014 has been transformed from one of apocalyptic violence to peaceful co-existence.
I find this movie encouraging — an example of how God’s new kind of story in Jesus is making its way into the way we sometimes tell our stories.
Wouldn’t it be nice if things worked that easily? Brothers and sisters in Christ, our Lord Jesus changed history, too, but it works more slowly than that because it moves by the power of love, not force. So let’s end today by noticing where I think this new storyline is playing out most regularly. About a century ago a Hindu man took the story of Jesus so seriously that he was able to turn it into a mass movement of nonviolent resistance to the British Empire. Mahatma Gandhi used the Sermon on the Mount along with his own Hindu spirituality to craft a story of being willing to suffer the violence, never to inflict it, in order to stand against oppressive imperialistic violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought that way of nonviolent resistance to America, combined with his own discipleship of Jesus, as the template for how to write the new story in America, with first the Civil Rights Movement and then in the last couple years of his life the Poor People’s Campaign. In our own time, the mantle of Dr. King is carried by someone like Rev. William Barber, who has revived King’s Poor People’s Campaign. These are the stories worth telling in more detail. But not today, especially since we have Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount in just two weeks.
Today, let’s end with our typical sort of question: in this broken and divided world of our, how important is it for us to participate in God’s new story of creating one new humanity? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, January 30, 2022
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/rysN8OtP43g?t=685