+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on February 4, 2019 +
Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1–13; Luke 4:21-30
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
So begins one of the more famous poems by Robert Frost, in which he and his neighbor come together to mend the wall that separates their farms.
As he starts this springtime ritual, the poet ponders why he must continuously rebuild this stone wall that it keeps falling down.
He sees how the winter frosts and the animals of the field tear gaps in the wall, reminding him that nature does not create these divisions, does not recognize lines on a map.
And yet there he toils with his neighbor who repeats, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
But Frost laments this wall and sees only a barrier that seeks to separate us from each other.
He questions whether this is really how we should labor and toil, especially when it’s so clear that something larger than us wants it torn down.
It’s a question and lament that continues to speak to me more than a century after Frost penned these words.
Not just because our government is still debating whether to spend more than $5 billion to expand the wall on our southern border.
Not just because we like to wall ourselves into gated communities and put up video doorbells so we can see who is at our door before we decide if we will open it.
But because we are still locked into this mentality of “us vs. them,” of insiders and outsiders, of fear of “other” people.
We fool ourselves into thinking that walls will make us more secure, that we have to shut other people out to be safe.
And of course I’m not saying that we shouldn’t lock our front doors or cars to protect ourselves and our property, but the necessity of these measures highlight the fear that captivates us.
And it reminds us how far we still are from God’s vision for humanity.
I hear the poet’s lament echoing through our scripture readings this morning.
Today’s gospel reading provides us the conclusion to the story we began last week.
If you’ll remember, Jesus returned to worship in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and went up to read the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, God 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.”
Then in his inaugural sermon, he proclaims that “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And as today’s gospel picks up the story, we see that everyone was amazed. Jesus’ friends, family, and neighbors are amazed at what he has spoken to them—at the words of grace and gospel that they have heard from this same Jesus whom they’ve known since he was a kid.
And this is some good news that Jesus is proclaiming to them!
He is announcing to his impoverished hometown living under foreign domination that God is on their side and that they will be free.
He is declaring to his neighbors living with sin and doubt and hidden pain that God loves them and is coming to make them whole.
Everything is going so well…until Jesus keeps talking.
Until Jesus explains that this pronouncement is not just for them, but for all people, including their enemies.
Jesus is telling his neighbors that they cannot wall themselves off from other people anymore, a message that was difficult for them to hear.
They were the children of Abraham, God’s chosen people, and for so much of their history they drew strict lines between themselves and other nations.
But one constant arc throughout all of scripture is God’s constant breaking down of the walls that God’s people labored and toiled to erect.
From the beginning, God tells Abraham that this new people will be a blessing for the whole world.
And God anoints the young Jeremiah to be a prophet not just to his own people, but to all nations.
Time and time again, God crosses the boundaries the people imposed and shows them that God is up to something much bigger than they had imagined.
And in his hometown synagogue, Jesus cites two instances of this expansiveness.
How the great prophet Elijah went to Sidon, the longtime oppressors of the Israelites, to feed a non-believing Gentile widow and her son during the famine with a jar of meal that wouldn’t empty and a jug of oil that remained filled.
And how Elisha was sent by God to heal that foreigner Naaman, the rival Syrian military commander, and command him to bathe in the flowing waters of the Jordan River and his leprosy was washed away.
And with these examples, Jesus is emphasizing that his mission is not for his hometown crowd alone—it’s not just for the insiders—but for all people of all nations, including their rivals, including those they may prefer to exclude.
Or, as the sage Simeon proclaimed in the second chapter of Luke, Jesus brings salvation to all people, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” and glory to Israel.
Jesus is telling his people that his ministry is not going to remain within the confines of what they may feel is comfortable or proper, but is going to spread widely among all the nations, that it is meant for all the people, that every single child of God is included in the love that he is proclaiming and enacting.
But this is not what his hometown crowd wanted to hear.
This is not the sermon that his friends and family and neighbors expected from Jesus.
They liked it when he was declaring God’s love for them, God’s favor for them, God’s salvation for them, but as soon as he expands his reach beyond their comfort zone, they literally try to throw him off a cliff.
And we have to ask ourselves, why the sudden shift from gracious acceptance to outrage?
I think it’s because they want a God that they can comprehend, a God whose actions they can predict, a God who fits within their box.
They want a gospel that makes them feel good, that doesn’t ask too much of them, that doesn’t ask them to change.
They like the walls and the structures and the theologies that keep them secure.
And now this Jesus, Joseph’s kid, is saying that this good news is not theirs to hold, but is for all people.
He’s talking about a God who is wild, a God who is always outside of the boxes we construct, a God who is committed to spreading love with reckless abandon.
And this gospel that Jesus is proclaiming is so uncomfortable that it infuriates them.
They reject Jesus and his message as they literally try to push him out of town, and as they do, Jesus slips through unseen and goes on his way.
They tried to hold so tightly onto the good news for themselves that the scope of the gospel slipped through their fingers.
Isn’t it funny? How no one gets upset when they hear that God loves them, that God has sent Jesus to redeem them and bring them to God, that God is on their side.
It’s when they hear that God is also for those other people whom we call our enemies, or for those people we think are unworthy, that God loves them just as much as God loves us, that’s when we pause.
It’s when we hear that God loves the migrant children imprisoned on our southern border and the people living under the highway overpass just as much as us.
When we realize that God’s love for us is the same as God’s love for the criminal in prison and the addict on the street.
When we are forced to ponder how God loves those who look differently, think differently, vote differently, and worship differently just the same as God loves us—that’s when we get offended.
We want this love for us, to be God’s special people, to be the chosen ones, but when we hear how expansive this love truly is, that’s when we object.
We like to build these walls between us insiders and those people on the outside.
And perhaps it’s based on the same fear that causes us to lock our doors and build wall to keep out foreigners.
Perhaps it’s the same fear that whispers lies into our ears saying that one color of skin is somehow superior to another, or that our country is greater than any other.
A fear that clings to the known and the comfortable.
A fear that assumes scarcity when God’s love abounds, that if God is for everyone then maybe we aren’t special.
A fear that tells us that good fences make good neighbors.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down,” the poet says.
And for us, that something is Jesus.
For us, that something is the love of God.
Jesus has come into our world, into our community to be the something among us that tears down our walls, that broadens our visions to see the expansiveness of God’s good news, that shows us how love triumphs over our fear.
To show us how the love of God that knows no boundaries.
The love that fills the hungry with the bread of life and whose waters flow to heal all people.
The love that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things;” the love that never ends until the whole creation is filled with the love of God.
These scriptures show us that God’s love is far broader than we can imagine, it does not abide our tribalism or nationalism, it is not compatible with our envy or fear, but rejoices in the truth of God’s good news.
And even though his own friends and neighbors reject him, Jesus goes an immediately begins his ministry living out the gospel he announced in the synagogue.
He goes to Capernaum, a city filled with Gentiles, and heals and proclaims God’s love for them.
He lives a life full of that love for all people, of crossing boundaries and borders, of upending oppression and norms, of healing and feeding the outsiders and the foreigners and the rejected and the forgotten.
And even when that pervasive fear tries to reject him again and wants to stop his ministry, he shows us how love triumphs over the vilest instruments of fear and death with the promise of life.
My friends, this is a sermon we as a church still need to hear—not just here at Holy Cross, but the whole church.
We have allowed ourselves to become complacent in the gospel, allowing it to simply be a reminder of how much God loves us.
And we have risked forgetting its power in pushing us to proclaim that love for all people in word and deed.
We’ve settled for the dim reflection and forgotten the fullness of God’s love.
We’ve long relied on that old model of trying to get people to come into our church to find Jesus and hear of God’s love for them, to join us here in our comfort zone.
We’ve long tried to fit the gospel in this box, to hold it within these walls.
But as our own Bishop Kirby and so many in the church are reminding us, the job of the church is to follow Jesus out of these walls and to be in the world, to be in the neighborhood, to be on the streets and to see Christ there.
To see where Jesus has slipped through our midst.
To see where God has gone ahead of us and has been waiting for us.
We have this gift, this assurance of God’s love for us and for all people.
We cannot allow ourselves to horde it behind these walls, but should join with Christ in breaking down all the barriers that hold this good news captive.
The call of this gospel is that we cannot stay in our regular routines any more, that that God’s good news is not just for those of us who gather here on Sunday morning, that this is not the time to play it safe but to boldly venture forward confident that Christ has gone ahead of us.
And maybe we are like Jeremiah and wish this call were for someone else, someone more experienced, someone better suited.
Maybe we fear where we are headed.
But God comes to us and says, “I have chosen you, I have consecrated you, I have appointed you as my messenger to the nations and I have put the good news of my love for all people in your mouth.”
Yes, we have been anointed with and by Jesus to proclaim this gospel to the world, following the example he gave us.
And we go with Christ to see God’s blessing all around us in the places we least expect, and to spread and embody and experience the love of God that knows no boundaries.
May it be so.