This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Luke 4:21-30.
It’s clothes shopping that does it for me. After an hour or so of wandering around the shops, trying things on, and finding that most of them were clearly designed for someone significantly slimmer and more gorgeous than I am, I can begin to feel the rage building. I need to buy new bathers sometime soon, and I think I had better carry some sort of warning sign when I do!
It’s a very human thing, isn’t it? To be angry when we feel inadequate?
I wonder if that explains the way that the congregation in the synagogue responded to Jesus in our reading this morning. Here he is, local boy made good, back from his work in other areas, and what does he tell them? Basically, that they’re not as good as the people and places he’s been visiting. That they don’t deserve to see a miracle.
But why did Jesus respond to them in this way, and why did he get cranky with them? I can’t be absolutely certain, but I suspect that he wanted to be more than a spectacle. He didn’t want people he had known his whole life to turn what he was doing into a matter of entertainment or shock value; he wanted them to take his message seriously. And he was concerned that they weren’t prepared to do that, because after all, hadn’t they known him since he was an adorable toddler?
We know from other parts of the gospel that Jesus was tempted by the ascent to power, the need to appear successful and shortcuts to achieving his kingdom. But Jesus refused to let those things ultimately determine his behaviour. He intentionally rejected an identity built on being “relevant” and celebrated. Instead, he embraced the purpose for which he came, and staked his ministry on being God’s beloved son, whether or not anyone responded.
It highlights that for me, one of the great challenges in life is to manage to see ourselves as we are; neither thinking too little nor too much of ourselves. But since so much of our emotion is entangled in our sense of self worth, this is extraordinarily difficult.
Every week in our worship we say that “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” This threefold pattern describes how true transformation is found on the far side of relinquishment and letting go. Christ’s pattern of letting go should be our own approach for life.
But we often refuse to let go, and remain blind to our attachments. We fail to see how the things we want to achieve – or the things we have achieved – can become most important to us, taking the bulk of our time, money and emotional energy. We ignore how fixed our sense of identity has become, and how it shows up in our possessiveness, control, or drive for comfort or recognition. We avoid any relinquishment which we possibly can. We resist looking into the core of our identities, securities and addictions – and we all have them – and saying, “For the love of Jesus I will let it go.”
And yet, it is only through letting go of that controlling streak that we can really trust God. It’s only when we let go of the recognition of the world, that we can be recognised as God’s beloved children. Ultimately, detachment from secondary things is only possible if our first attachment is to God.
One of the biggest examples of this that I’ve had the chance to observe was actually watching people come to theological college. There were people from all walks of life; from an artist’s model and stand up comedian to lawyers, teachers, business people, government policy specialists and even one man who had worked as an intelligence operative for ASIO.
We all struggled to some extent with leaving our former lives behind. Who were we, when we no longer had the recognition and seniority of our former roles? One fellow student told me in frustration that he was so sick of feeling like “Bozo the clown,” not knowing what he was doing, and not receiving very much encouragement!
But what was fascinating about this was the way we all tried to manage those emotions. College could be an astonishingly bitchy place, with battles fought over how we should worship, what we should believe, and what this whole ministry thing was about anyway. We each took our stand and then fought with everything to hand to defend it. I wasn’t immune either; I have an embarrassing memory of totally losing my temper one afternoon in the pub after class. (Can you tell I made the most of that time of learning and growing?)
Most of this sort of thing settles down for each of us as we move out of college and into the busy working life of ministry. Not just because we have enough to do to keep us out of mischief, but also because as we actually get on and do worthwhile things, that deep anxiety about who I am and whether I have anything worthwhile to offer at all starts to settle. When we find that our days are full of caring for and listening to people, praying, teaching, administering and all the other bits and pieces, we can see that there’s something tangible and of value there. And while I’m still full of opinions, I’m much less likely to lose my temper defending them, because there are other things of enduring value (that would be, all of you) to invest my time and attention in.
What I’m getting at, in telling you about that, is that this sort of thing is not unique to theological colleges. We might have had a particularly intense experience of it, but every parish has its conflicts, its struggle over its own identity, and what we’re supposed to be doing here anyway. And often those interactions are driven not really by the presenting issues which are on the surface, but by the things we can’t see; people’s sense of failure or weakness or suffering; people’s ideas about success, or need for power or to bolster insecurities; mistakes of the past which shape a parish for decades to come.
It’s worth thinking about – and I leave it with you to think about – what is really driving those emotional reactions, and whether they are ultimately entirely healthy.
Jesus told the congregation in the synagogue that their motivations were not healthy, and they were filled with rage. Far better for us if we can work on building and maintaining healthy motivations and attachments, putting God first and everything else in perspective, so we can avoid getting to that point of humiliation!