January 30, 2022
"Living on the Edge"
Rev. Scott Landis
A few years ago, I used to enjoy watching a popular television show “American Idol.” In case you are not familiar with the show, just like its counterpoint – “The Voice,” “American Idol” brings in kids from all over the United States for a singing audition and then, if they made the cut, took their raw talent, and helped refine them into musical stars – almost overnight!
The field of prospective winners narrowed each week as elimination rounds continued until just a few were left standing. Close to the time the winner was about to be selected – by votes from television viewers – the finalists got to return to their hometowns to huge welcoming crowds. Typically, they would perform a few songs and answer questions from inquiring reporters regarding their experience on the show while the admiring hometown crowd hung on their every word expecting to be mesmerized by whatever they have to say. [Pause]
To be sure, the situation in today’s gospel lesson was slightly different, but the relational dynamics were amazingly similar. Jesus was a rising star in the rabbinic world. He had just completed his first test in ministry with aplomb as he stymied the power of the devil by not succumbing to his temptations.
Meanwhile, back in his hometown, Jesus was invited to preach – which he did by reading from the Isaiah scroll. His Hebrew was impeccable as he read those now famous words:
“God’s Spirit is on me;
God has chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
And to announce, ‘This is God’s year of Jubilee.’”
The ‘Year of Jubilee’ being - a once-in-every-50-year phenomenon when all debt was canceled. People were given the opportunity to get back on their feet financially as everyone was given a second chance.
The hometown crowd went wild – initially. They couldn’t believe their ears. Murmurs where audibly heard as some gasped, “Isn’t that Mary and Joseph’s son?” How did he get to be so smart? So eloquent? And to think, he came from our town. And then … it got interesting. [Pause]
When Jesus rolled up the scroll – he began to speak from his heart. He didn’t address the words of the text specifically, he instead unpacked his innermost thoughts. And, when he did, all that admiration quickly turned into condemnation as they forced him to the edge of the cliff wanting to throw him off and get rid of him. You see, from the very beginning Jesus was “despised and rejected – a man of sorrows – and all too well-acquainted with grief.” [Pause]
I invited folks in our Zoom session on Wednesday to think about times in their lives when THEY were rejected for various reasons and particularly after sharing cherished beliefs from their hearts. I won’t reveal what was said, but I invite you to do the same. Think of a time when those who meant the most to you – be they parents, extended family, dear friends, or folks you thought would stand by you no matter what, but who instead turned their backs on you at a critical moment in your life. Or, worse still, actively rejected you – shunned you – or expressed their disapproval if not shame in your deeply held beliefs. Doing this will help you understand a bit more about what Jesus faced. [Pause]
We might wonder why the hometown folks responded so angrily to his very brief sermon. All he did was remind them of what THEIR own scriptures clearly stated – that God’s grace was NOT reserved for their people only. God was much bigger than that. God actually went outside their tribe in order to heal a Gentile (Naaman) and care for a widow in Zarephath who was not of Hebraic descent. These were their stories Jesus reminded them – stories that sound exactly like what we would expect of God – right? Or do we?
The late chaplain of Harvard University Peter Gomes said of this incident, “the people took offense not so much with what Jesus claimed for himself, as with the claims he made about God – by pointing out that God was more than THEIR tribal deity. [Pause]
Most of us have grown up with a fairly well-defined understanding of God. While we may not admit it, we may think God looks like us and reasons like us – believes the same things we do. Some have described this as keeping God neatly tucked away in a box – like a prized possession which we control. In so doing we are the ones who try and determine whom God should love, care for, or minister to.
Some have even taken this idea so far as to purport that God ONLY cares for the followers of Jesus. That is, one must be a Christian for God to love you, save you, and eventually welcome you into the heavenly realm – whatever that might be. I think Jesus was trying to debunk that idea from his opening words – his first sermon – and that infuriated those who knew him when…. And with that they tried to drive him out of town – to the edge of the cliff. [Pause]
In my preparation for this message, I tried to envision Jesus in that moment. Being driven to the edge – even though he was able to slip away. I thought about that very precarious and dangerous position he was in not just physically but – metaphorically – because it’s precisely where he lived most of his life.
His was not a life of comfort and ease – one in which he was greeted fondly in the marketplaces and given seats of honor in the synagogue or at banquets. No. Jesus lived his life – on the edge. And that made all the difference in the world because it was from that vantage point that he was able to offer his amazing grace to everyone – no exceptions. [Pause]
When we shared our stories of rejection the other day on Zoom, I was struck by the pain expressed by some who had been ostracized from their communities of faith for taking stands of acceptance and affirmation for all. Funny, isn’t it, how so many are UN-comfortable openly welcoming all no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey – but seem amazingly comfortable in setting standards of acceptance when it comes to matters of faith.
We humans have a seemingly insatiable desire to set standards of who is in and who is out. It helps us to control our world - makes us feel safe - building barriers rather than bridges.
I don’t think God operates that way. No. I believe God is very comfortable at the margins – at the edge. In fact, that’s where we find God most of the time because that’s where God finds those who have been rejected for whatever reason and says once more, “Come unto me all of you who are weary and heavy laden. I will give you rest.” [Pause]
The story is told of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu as he reflected on his relationship with his friend the Dalai Lama. Tutu opined, “Do you really think, as some have argued, that God will be saying: ‘You know that guy, the Dalai Lama, is not a bad guy. What a pity he’s not a Christian? I don’t think that is the case, because, you see, God is not a Christian.
Friends, God is not nor cannot be confined to any stereotype or any box we try to put God in for our comfort. God lives on the edge and embraces those who have been so relegated to that same place.
God says to the Hindu, the Sheikh, the Muslim, the Christian, and the Jew – God says to the gay, the straight, the transgender, and the non-binary – God says to the man, the woman, the accepted and the rejected – “you need not be an American Idol – I love you for who you are. Just exactly as you are. In fact, I don’t care whether you believe in me or not – I’m going to keep loving you. And I’ll be around a lot longer than you.
For some reason this is a very controversial message and difficult one for many Christians to accept. And it’s precisely the message that got Jesus killed. But if we ever cease to preach it, and if we ever cease to live it – in word and in deed – we will no longer be the church Jesus envisioned.
To be the church of Jesus Christ – we too have to get somewhat comfortable “living on the edge.”