Epiphany 3C Sermon (2013)

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Luke 4:14-21;
1 Cor. 12:12-31a

EMBODIED LOVE: TURNING COMMUNITY INSIDE-OUT

 Like many Christian churches, we follow the season of Christmas with Epiphany. Our theme this Epiphany season is “Embodied Love.” God’s love became embodied in Jesus on Christmas, but now it’s no longer just the Baby Jesus we’re talking about. Last Sunday, Pastor Dave reminded us how the adult Jesus embodied God’s love by reaching out to those on the outside in human community. Jesus chose lowly servants to witness his first sign of God’s love breaking in to the world. Jesus continued this throughout his ministry and even on Easter morning when women — decidedly unimportant in Jewish culture — were the first witnesses to the Resurrection.

And in this morning’s Gospel we hear why. In the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah to read. The words he chooses are:

“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus has been anointed and sent out not to dwell with the insiders of the Temple or the powerful leaders of nations, but to bring the Good News to the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed. Those rejected and on the outside looking in on human community. Jesus makes it clear that he isn’t just there to speak the Good News. With all eyes fixed on him, he rolls up the scroll, sits, and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He hasn’t just come to speak it. He’s come to embody it right there in their midst. He’s come to live God’s love among them in a way that blurs the usual lines between in and out.

The embodied love of God. When lived out in human community, it takes the form of welcoming outsiders in. But in some communities, there seems to be a tipping point. Outsiders are welcomed as long as there are not too many of “them” or as long as they learn to believe and act in the same way as the community. The insiders feel good about being open, and even sometimes use it as a “looking good strategy” — a way to can say to others, “aren’t we doing great?” But when the scale tips and the number of outsiders becomes greater than what is “acceptable” or they bring new ideas to share, some insiders leave and go back to more closed, traditional communities where boundaries are clear. Others stay, but redouble efforts to force outsiders back out. We’ll see that exact thing happen to Jesus in next Sunday’s Gospel as the story of his Nazareth homecoming takes an unexpected turn and he is driven out. Jesus being forced out is not a side-story; it’s the center of the story in all four Gospels. It is the essence of the Cross. In embodying God’s love, the who’s in and who’s out dynamics of human community are turned inside-out.

The past two Sundays we’ve also been treated to St. Paul’s marvelous imagery of the Church as the Body of Christ. This morning he tells us that “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member,” so we will be sure to care for one another in love. This is another way in which the embodiment of God’s love would turn things inside-out. In Jesus’ time when someone was experiencing suffering, it was often an occasion for the community to shame and sometimes drive them out, because it was assumed God was using the suffering to punish that person. But St. Paul is telling us no, we are to care for those who are suffering — care for them in great love.

Even today some people still hear the voice of a condemning God when bad things happen. When someone asks, “Why is this happening to me?” — it can be easy to hear at least an echo of a voice that says, “Because you screwed up and you’re being punished.” As a Pastor I still help people grapple with those kinds of questions. Jesus came to embody a God of love in a way which shocks our ordinary ideas about who’s in and who’s out.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my favorite story on changing our minds about who God is. It’s Christian counselor and pastor Dennis Linn’s personal story of how his mind was changed about God. (1) He tells of Hilda coming into his office one day because her son had attempted suicide for the fourth time. She described how her son was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder and then ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”

Pastor Linn tells how he personally believed in the popular version of God being something like a stern father, but the counselor in him didn’t want to tell that to this struggling mother. Instead, he began by asking Hilda what she thought. But Hilda was trapped in that same idea of a stern punishing God. “Well,” she replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Again, Pastor Linn didn’t want to admit he agreed with her so he tried another counseling tactic. He had Hilda close her eyes and imagine herself sitting next to the judgment seat of God. He also had her imagine her son’s arrival at the judgment seat with all his serious sins and without repenting. Then he asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” So Pastor Linn asked Hilda what she would do, to which she responded, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.

Finally, when she had stopped crying, Pastor Linn asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. Hilda saw God step down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embrace her son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another. What Pastor Linn said he learned about God that day is this: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most. God loves us unconditionally.

Jesus came to embody God’s love in a way that messes up our ways of seeing who’s in and who’s out. Jesus’s Embodied Love is good news to those on the outside, the poor, the captive, the oppressed. Our family here at Prince of Peace is already good at taking special care of those who are suffering, and reaching out to the poor and hungry both nearby and across the globe.

But if we are to embody God’s love more deeply, what boundaries will that mess up — will we mess up here in Portage and Kalamazoo in 2013? Will it be continuing to become more intentional in welcoming our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters? Will it be deepening our understanding of systemic racism in ways that tear down walls that still divide us? How will we embody God’s love to work toward becoming one humanity in Jesus Christ?

Jesus comes to us each and every Sunday to heal our broken spirits with his love embodied in the sharing bread and wine, a feast where all are welcome. Because there is no prerequisite for the grace of being fed by Embodied Love and then going out this week to share it through lives of loving service. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 27, 2013

1. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.

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