Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
1st Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
King's Cupboard Food Pantry is a well-stocked, organized place for our neighbors in need to get food. There are plenty of desserts and meats, a good selection of produce and canned goods and other items. There is always plenty of food. At the dessert table, some big fancy desserts are even held in the kitchen until later in the afternoon, so that there is an even distribution through the day of different kinds of desserts. And that is why it is so hard for me to understand why people come and line up for the pantry. These days, the line might start at 11 or 12, with the pantry open at 3. On nicer summer days, the line might start at 9:30 or 10, with little or no benefit to coming early and waiting. But the clients who come, have very strong feelings about it. They invest their time in waiting, so woe to the one who tries to cut in line.
Some try to cut, with a language barrier making it difficult to explain the rules. Some children cut with the excuse that they innocent and don't know any better. Others cut and laugh it off, as if it doesn't matter. There have been times that we've thought it might come to a fist-fight and many times we've discussed strategies such as having a lottery system in which clients pick a random number that places them in that position in the line, so they wouldn't necessarily go first if they arrived first, so they have no incentive to come so early. So far we have dismissed that plan, afraid of the chaos and mutiny it might cause.
All of this is leading to Jesus' reading of the Bible in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. People are feeling generally good about this. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They like Jesus. They like what he has to say. But for Jesus, he seems to hear or see something there that we may have missed. Maybe it was a look they gave him, or maybe it was their tone of voice. When they say, “Isn't this Joseph's son?” what does Jesus hear? Does he hear, “Isn't this Joseph's son, who does he think he is?” Maybe he hears, “Isn't this Joseph's son who owes us something because we are close to him and related to him?”
Jesus seems to hear that they want something from him. “Doubtless you will quote me this parable 'Doctor, cure yourself.'” I'm not exactly sure what this means, but it does remind me of the comments when Jesus was on the cross, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Now that Jesus has this power—the power to heal, to feed, to share words that inspire—people are asking who is this power for? When he was in the wilderness, he was tempted to use it for his own gain, to get God's attention, to acquire land and kingdoms, to feed himself. This is like a continuation of the temptations. Now that you have these powers, doctor, use them to cure yourself, first. Make your life easy. Make yourself great. And while you're at it, throw some of that our direction.
Jesus' friends and family and next door neighbors want to be first in line. They think they are entitled to be first in line, because they know him or are related to him. They think Jesus owes them or that they own him, that he is theirs to heal them and feed them and do their bidding.
Sometimes we feel entitled to Jesus and try to keep him for ourselves, too. Sometimes we think we've been waiting in line the longest, attended church so faithfully, fed the poor and volunteered so well, he should be ours, do things the way we want him to, cater to us. I remember one time my grandma talking about a young man who had died in a car accident. She said, “And he was such a fine Christian boy!” We all bit our tongues to try to be polite, but we knew that being Christian doesn't mean your life is any easier, or that your life means more than someone else's, or that you have any special protection. Being Christian doesn't put us at the front of the line. It doesn't mean we own Jesus or that he owes us healing or anything else. He isn't our tool to use for those we find deserving.
The widows in Israel at the time of the famine, might be assumed to be at the front of the line. They were God's chosen people, blessed and faithful. But there is no story of Elijah going to them. Jesus points out that Elijah went, instead, to a foreigner, a Gentile. It was she who prepared her last bit of flour for him and because of her generosity, her flour jar did not give out until after the famine was over.
The lepers in Israel would probably think they would be first in line for God to heal them, because of their special relationship with God. Instead, God sent Elisha to someone who wasn't even in line at all, a Syrian named Naaman, another Gentile.
Jesus is saying to all those who think they are first in line, that they are entitled to a special life, to have a monopoly on healing and the power and blessing of God, that God has other plans in mind. Maybe it is that the ones we least expect it will be more receptive to God's blessing, or that there are people in more need than these people from Nazareth, or that there will be no special treatment, they will all be given a random number in line, but I don't think it is just random. Again and again, God chooses the ones at the back of the line, the one who didn't even know there was a line. There is Abraham from long ago, who is childless and old, who God promises will be the father of many nations. There is Mary chosen to bear God's son, a young woman, poor and humble. There is the Centurion, a Gentile, whose daughter Jesus brings back to life. There is the donkey Jesus rides upon on palm Sunday, not much of a noble steed. There is the criminal crucified next to Jesus who hears the words, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
I went to a lunch put on by Lutheran Community Services about how our congregations can help settle Syrian refugees. One pastor shared this story from when his church helped out a refugee family last year. One of the members of his congregation had shared with a friend what the congregation was doing. The friend said, “That is so nice of you to help settle a Christian from the Middle East. Have they joined your church, yet?” The church member said, “Oh, no. This is a Muslim family. We have helped them connect with the local mosque so they can worship God with their community.” The friend said, “Why would your church help them if they aren't Christian?” The church member simply said, “Because they are in need.” Jesus came to help the ones in need. We are here to help those in need, not to make sure we and those who are most like us get first in line.
For some, who see themselves as being first in line, this can cause some anger, like it did Jesus' family and friend in Nazareth. “Why have I been wasting my time in this line? I have been waiting so long! I deserve more! Why don't we do things the way I like them to be done in this church—I give more money, I volunteer more! I've been part of this church longer.”
Maybe we see ourselves as being in a line, some being closer or further away in relationship to God. But I think God sees us more as a family, a group of people all related to one another, all bearing the light of Christ to one another. That's where the reading from 1 Corinthians comes in. It is all about love. God is love. We are here to love one another. Like the song says, “They'll know we are Christians by our love.”
This reading is heard most often at weddings, but it is not about erotic love. It is about agape love. Agape is about self-sacrificing love, giving something up for someone else. It is about an active love that doesn't expect anything in return. It seeks the best for the other person. In fact, we are all called in our baptism, like the prophet Jeremiah is called in the Old Testament reading this morning. We are all named and claimed by God in our baptism, fully known and given the fullness of agape love. And we are called, not to be first in line, but to minister to all God's people, all God's creation, which is a bigger group than we ever thought. And it isn't just to love when things are easy. Paul writes this letter to the church in Corinth because they are arguing. The call to agape love extends even to our enemies, especially to those we can't get along with or understand. Maybe our first reaction to our call from God, like Jeremiah is to run the other way, to make up excuses, to downplay our gifts. But the truth is, God has continued to love us, even when we draw lines, even when we run away, even when we are combative and divisive. And it isn't by our own power that we love, God is doing it through us. It is the power of God's love that will reach our hearts and soften them until we can see the whole family of God's creation as being related to us. God will surprise us with the agape love that will pour out of us when we recognize in ourselves someone unworthy of that sacrifice that Jesus made, yet a recipient of God's grace all the same, and when we can be open to God sharing that agape love with others who are unworthy, yet also in great need.
Sterling often asks me, “Mom, why do you love me?” I think he mostly wants to hear again how much I do love him. I can't seem to give him a satisfactory answer. Sometimes I say, “Because you're my son” or “Because you're lovable.” Sometimes he asks me, “Why do you love everybody in the whole world?” That is a baffling question to me. Sometimes I say in answer to that, “Well, I try to love everybody, but I don't always succeed.” He doesn't like that answer. Sometimes I say, “I love them because they are all God's children.” Maybe he's just trying to throw a million questions at me and stump me, but he's asked this so many times, it makes me think. How can I be loving to everybody in the whole world? Can God work through me to see value in each person, to try to connect with each person, to try to be a loving shoulder to cry on or someone you can bounce ideas off of and I'll try to be honest and kind. Even if I don't succeed, it is an ideal to work toward. It is worth opening ourselves to God's love and rather than bottling it up and giving it only to those we think deserve it or who we know, but to trust that it will abide and there will be enough so that if we let it flow through us, it could mean a more loving world, and more people will know the love of God face to face.