The Wideness and the Wildness in God’s Mercy

Sermon Notes: 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Luke 4:21-30

I mentioned in last week’s sermon that the reaction to Jesus’ words wasn’t quite foreshadowed by the verse that the lectionary selection stopped on, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:21). In reflecting on today’s Gospel, it’s not surprising that one person I heard comment on these readings said “Jesus just picked a fight!”

I would offer qualified agreement with that statement. Jesus is picking a fight, but not a direct one, with the people of Nazareth (though not only them–with us as well).  To understand what Jesus is doing here, I believe it will be helpful to consider a few things that can highlight important aspects of Christ’s interpretation in Luke 4:23-27.

I was recently reading a review of a collection of interviews that has been brought together about the late author Madeline L’Engle (an Episcopalian, by the way). The reviewer mentions that L’Engle suggests in one of her books, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, that a piece of art can “know more than the artist who created it” (read the review here). L’Engle writes:

When the artist is truly the servant of the work, the work is better than the artist; Shakespeare knew how to listen to his work, and so he often wrote better than he could write; Bach composed more deeply, more truly than he knew; Rembrandt’s brush put more of the human spirit on canvas than Rembrandt could comprehend.

When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get our of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way and listening is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer (page 24).

In other words, an artist, when obedient, comes to *do* more than the artist can do. The artist is  called beyond themselves to accomplish something true. This reality is not limited to artists, but applies to each of us. We are all capable of bearing witness to things that are better, greater, more true than we could create or conceive on our own. Indeed, we are capable of it even when we don’t understand intellectually what is happening.

We are called to an obedience which draws us beyond ourselves, away from the comfortable sins we often believe to be stable virtues. We are called to a way of living which recognizes that in the end, it is God who sets the parameters of what we ought to do and who we ought to be.

L’Engle begins her reflection on artists being called beyond themselves with a discussion of the Virgin Mary, where she states that “Mary did not always understand. But one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding–that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of–there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand” (p. 22-23).

If this is true, if we can be obedient without understanding, if we can hear the call without knowing from whence it comes, then we have to recognize that any one of us regardless of belief could become a witness to the ways of God. We have to be careful with this, it’s true, but we also can’t deny that this is a biblical reality. Consider, for example, that Cyrus of Persia is called the anointed of God, despite the fact that Cyrus did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and despite the fact that he likely didn’t have a special fondness for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, when Cyrus destroys the Babylonians and grants the exiles the freedom to return to their homeland, he is honored as the anointed instrument of God, who accomplished much more in the grant narrative of history than he could have known (Isaiah 45:1).

A modern example of someone with no connection–as far as I know–with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the Gospel of Christ, who was nevertheless instrumental in what I can only describe as a witness to the love of God, to the sort of action that God calls us to. A person who was a sort of modern day Cyrus, enabling the travel of many Jewish people. This time though, it was a travel away from their homes, but toward safety.

Chiune Sugihara is named by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a group of gentiles who stood in various ways, and gave assistance to Jewish people during the horrors of the Holocaust. Sugihara became the Japanese Consul General in Lithuania in 1940. In defiance of his government he issued visas that allowed thousands of Jewish families to escape, through Russia, then to Japan and on to various countries in the West. One article states that:

From July 31 to Aug. 28, 1940, Sugihara and his wife stayed up all night, writing visas.

The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.

It is estimated that Sugihara’s visas saved as many as 6,000 Jewish people in the midst of WWII, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that there are as many as 40,000 people alive today because of Sugihara’s actions.

In one sense what Sugihara did was very simple: he wrote and issued documents. He put pen and stamp to paper. But in another sense what he did required something dramatically important: he got out of the way! He knew what was right and he did it.

What about your career? Get out of the way…

What about your standing among your countrymen? Get out of the way…

What about possible danger to your own life? Get out of the way…

He knew what was right, and he did it, and his actions have had an importance far beyond paper work, and even far beyond the immediate impact. Six thousand refugees have become forty thousand people alive today, including the first Orthodox Jewish Rhodes Scholar.

Do what’s right and get yourself, and everything else, out of the way.

In reality this is the fight that Jesus is picking with the folks listening to him in that Synagogue in Nazareth: get yourself out of the way. Listen, really listen to God;hear what he is doing.

As Christians we have to be honest and acknowledge a troublesome history of interpretation of this text, as though somehow Jesus’ examples indicate that God has moved on from the Jewish people, that his message is no longer for them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Both examples are of prophets whose primary ministry is to the people of Israel. In this respect, they are like Jesus. They are like Jesus also in the fact that their ministry and the love of the God they testify to is not bound by human boundaries or nationality. 

The message of Christ to the people of Nazareth is simply this: The promises are being fulfilled, but they are not promises to you alone.

Jesus calls them out on the fact that they want some special sign, some deed of power because this is his home town. That sense of specialness is part and parcel of the sense of specialness that would wright others out of God’s plan of salvation.

Indeed, it’s the same sense of specialness that led Christians to wrong write the Jewish people out of God’s plan, as though God had turned his back on them.

The promise is for all people, and Jesus is showing that it has always been so. God’s care for a gentile widow and the General of a hated enemy demonstrate the wideness of God’s love and care, a wideness of divine love embodied perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ.

We’re called to get out of the way. To be grateful for the grace of God, and get out of the way so that grace can shine through us and be a beacon to others.

Get out of the way. We’re called to do what is right, and share what is right with others.

Get out of the way. We’re called to be witnesses to, not sole proprietors of, God’s grace. We are called to recognize that God’s love is for anyone and can work through anyone, and we’re called to testify to whose love is being displayed in such moment.

The final verse of the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” expresses this well:

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

In this Holy Eucharist which we share, this service of Thanksgiving, pray that we may all offer our lives in thanksgiving to God, and rejoice in the goodness of the Lord and hear the words of the Apostle in a new way:

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21 , BCP 102).

There's a Wideness in God's Mercy by Beverly Hills All Saints' Church Choir on Grooveshark

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