Love Beyond

+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)/Lectionary +4C at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 30, 2022 +

Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30


For those of us who have gathered in person this morning, I have a question for you.
And I apologize in advance for the anxiety I’m about to create.
Did you lock your front door?

It’s one of those things that is so routine that we sometimes forget if we’ve actually done it, right?
Just the other day, Ryan and I were out for a couple hours and couldn’t for the life of us remember if we had locked the front door.
When we got home, we thankfully realized we had done it and everything was ok, but for a while we were worried that someone would just randomly wander by and open our door and take all our stuff.

Well, a few weeks ago, we also found out exactly how secure our home was.
We were out walking our dog, and when we got home we discovered that, not only had we locked our door, the deadbolt was stuck in place.
No matter how hard we turned the key, the lock would not budge.
So, we had no choice but to call a locksmith who said he could be there in about an hour.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that it was about 35º outside on a dark and rainy January evening and, after his walk, we had a very hungry dog who didn’t understand why on earth his dads weren’t just opening the door already.
When the locksmith finally arrived, even he couldn’t get the deadbolt to budge and was forced to drill the lock and pry it out from the door.
Only then could we get into our house with a fresh hole in our door.

Now, locks on our doors are important.
They protect our family and our property.
They help keep us safe by keeping other people out.
But all too frequently, we use this same mentality to order our lives and our society, right?
We like to know who’s in and who’s out.
We build massive walls to protect our country from supposed invaders.
We lock people up to keep society safe.
And before long, we find ourselves locked into this mentality of “us vs. them,” of insiders and outsiders, of fear of “other” people.
We fool ourselves into thinking that we have to protect what we have, that there isn’t enough to share, and if we open ourselves to the outsiders we risk losing what we have.

In today’s gospel reading, we have a 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, Jesus proclaimed 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 truly good news that Jesus was proclaiming to them!
He was announcing to his impoverished hometown living under foreign domination that God is on their side and that they will be free.
He was 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, everyone loved what he was saying…until Jesus keeps talking.
Until Jesus explains that this pronouncement is not just for them, but for all people.

Jesus tells his friends and 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 distinct 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, as we hear in our first reading, God anointed 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. 

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 later, 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.
Drawing on the richness of the long story of God’s expansive love, 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.
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 like the certainty their identity, of knowing that God’s love is for them—that they are in, even if that means someone else is out.
Because sometimes we humans decide that we need delineation, walls, locks even, to keep us secure.
And now, this Jesus, Joseph’s kid from down the street, is saying that this good news is not theirs to hold alone, but it is meant 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 who we try to keep on the outside, 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 migrants illegally crossing 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 person on death row and the addict on the street.
It’s 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.

It reminds me of the debate over gay marriage or the continued push for LGBTQIA+ rights in this country.
The constant refrain I hear from opponents is that the Queer community is trying to get “special rights.”
Or how the response to the statement “Black Lives Matter” always seems to be ‘all lives matter.’
The fight for marriage was never about special rights any more than advocating for queer rights is now, it’s about equality.
Of course saying “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that other lives don’t matter, it means that in a society that so often devalues Black lives, we need to remind ourselves that our Black siblings matter too.
It’s been said that when one is used to privilege, to knowing that they are special, any move toward equality can feel like oppression.
That we love justice and equality when it happens to us, but not necessarily when it happens to others.

I wonder if that isn’t the same feeling that was felt in the Nazarene synagogue that morning so long ago.
When Jesus preaches in that Nazareth sermon, he is absolutely declaring God’s love for the people in that room, the good news that is meant for them.
But when he also says that the same love, the same good news is meant for those outside their comfort zone, on the other side of their locked doors, the people get mad.
Jesus never says that God doesn’t love his hometown, that the liberation he brings isn’t meant for Nazareth, he just reminds them that God’s love and blessings are given to all nations, to all people equally.

Every year on the last Sunday in January, Reconciling Works invites all Reconciling in Christ congregations to celebrate RIC Sunday.
To remember and renew our commitment to welcoming all people in the name of Christ and to take stock of the work we have yet to do.
That we cannot stop at merely stating that we are welcoming, but that we will use our welcome statement, use our partnership in Jesus’ ministry, use the gospel of Jesus Christ to guide our life together and direct our common mission.
That we will continue to name and confront homophobia, transphobia, and racism in our church, our institutions, and our society.

On this RIC Sunday, I am mindful of the mission that God gave the young Prophet Jeremiah: “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
It’s a reminder that sometimes living into God’s calling to bringing the good news of God’s love for all people first requires some deconstruction.
Identifying the barriers, the walls, the locked doors that exist within ourselves, our church, and our institutions which are preventing God’s people from living into the good news that Christ proclaims and pulling them down, drilling the locks, so something new can be planted to grow and flourish.
That we cannot build the expansive and inclusive Church we have committed ourselves to striving for until we destroy the oppressive systems that have reigned for so long.
That we cannot hope for God’s love and justice to permeate our whole society until we overthrow the urge to hoard it for ourselves.

We have this gift, this assurance of God’s love for us and for all people.
We cannot allow ourselves to try to hold it for ourselves alone lest we realize that Christ has slipped between our fingers as he goes ahead of us to cross every boundary we have created to keep this good news captive.
Rather, the gospel calls us to go out and see where Christ has gone ahead of us—beyond our doors, beyond our walls, beyond our imagination—and experience the fulfillment of his promise.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard many and various ways by which Christ has revealed himself to us.
The baby whose birth caused heaven and earth to sing.
The Word of God made flesh.
The one who stands with us in the waters of promise.
Our God who revels in our joy.
The bearer and enactor of divine justice and liberation.
But now that we have seen who this Christ is, the focus shifts to us a bit—to how we will respond to this revelation.
Will we sit idly by, confident and content in the good news of God’s love for us?
Or will we take that good news, allow it to permeate every aspect of our lives, and go out with Christ to spread God’s love for all people until everyone can fully experiences that love.
Partner with Christ to tear down oppressive barriers and build a new creation seeped in God’s love and justice.

And maybe, like Jeremiah, we wish this call were for someone else, someone more experienced, someone better suited.
Maybe we appreciate the comfort and stability the current structures bring us and are hesitant to tear it down to build something new.
Maybe we fear where we are headed and want to hold onto what we have.
But God comes to us this day 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.”
We have been anointed by Jesus, my friends, to proclaim this gospel to the world, to spread this good news far beyond any barriers, following the example he gave us.
So let us 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.

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