Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Grace Around the Edges - The Rev. Dr. Frank Alton

The following message was given Sunday, January 31, 2010, at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, CA, by the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Frank Alton. It's one of the best messages I've read, and with Frank's permission, I'm sharing it with you today. Read and be blessed!

Grace around the edges
Jer. 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30

Don’t you hate it when people tell you an uncomfortable truth and you know they are right? I do. I’m reminded how much I hate it every time I go to my peer supervision group. Last Sunday I was in Oakland for one of four annual sessions of peer supervision. About a dozen leaders of multicultural institutions work with consultants to learn to be better leaders. I have come to love the group. But I remember how threatened I was during my first few years attending the group. From day one I was confronted by some of my blind spots in leadership. It was painful to have to face them. But I kept going back because I had learned the cost of quitting. You see, I’d experienced something similar when I took some acting classes right before I joined this group. I found the feedback there intolerable. I felt so vulnerable having to access scary parts of myself and put them on stage for all to see. I quit the acting classes before I had a breakthrough. I didn’t want that to happen again, so I hung in with peer supervision until the breakthrough.

Last week Elizabeth spoke to the first half of today’s Gospel lesson – Jesus’ sermon to those gathered in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus returned as a young adult to the village that helped raise him - not just his mother and brothers and sisters but also the neighbors who had kept him when his mother was sick, and the shopkeepers who had let him run errands for them, the old men who had leaned on their sticks in the heat of the day and told him stories that made his hair stand on end. He was their son too, so of course he went home to them, wanting to give them the best of what he had to offer. The people of Nazareth had heard reports of the great things Jesus did over in Capernaum. He gave them a dramatic message from Isaiah.

Today we read the second half of the story. Jesus pushed the sermon to the edge and got push back from the townspeople who literally pushed him to the edge of town. Jesus confronted his former neighbors with the uncomfortable truth that the least expected people often respond to God more than the expected ones and God in turn responds to them; and the most irritating truth of all: that everybody loses when we fail to love our enemy. Why is that? Well, the enemy loses because we block God’s work in their life; we lose because we miss the insight into God’s grace that we gain when we see God transform the very ones we call enemy. We turn people who are different from us into enemies because we don’t understand their behavior so we’re not sure we can control it. That makes us afraid – afraid of anyone who lives on or beyond the edge of our known world. I refer to the ones Jesus cited in Isaiah’s text - the poor, prisoners, the blind and (we could add) the mentally challenged, people from other cultures, immigrants, etc.

The people of Nazareth tried to get rid of the truth by killing the messenger. Can you blame them? Doesn’t it make you angry when someone tries to get you to reason with your enemy? Just when I’m really enjoying being angry with an enemy, someone comes along and suggests that my enemy is partly right. Oooh, that makes my blood boil. I want someone who says, “Yeah, and can you believe how they…?” That makes me feel better about my anger. I don’t want someone to say, “Well, have you looked at it from their side?” That is the last thing I want to hear when I’m angry.

And we do the same thing with God. As religious people we want God to oppose our enemies as much as we do. We want God to protect us from them rather than push us toward them. When we’re honest we admit that we’d rather have God bring vengeance on our enemies than reconcile us with them. That’s why the people of Nazareth were already a little edgy after Jesus’ reading of the Isaiah passage. They knew their Bibles, and they knew Jesus had left out a key phrase in the Isaiah scroll. The final verse didn’t end after, “to proclaim the year of God’s favor.” It went on to read, “And the day of vengeance of our God.” In their minds one could not come without the other. God’s favor for Israel was tied up with God’s vengeance on Israel’s enemies. Their enemies would finally get what’s coming to them. That’s what they waited for.

But Jesus’ vision went beyond Isaiah’s vision. Clearly Jesus had left out that final phrase intentionally. And he couldn’t just leave it at that. He had to make sure people understood the new level of inclusiveness that was central to his message. He understood that in order for “the year of God’s favor” to mean anything it had to include enemies as well as friends. So he went on to tell two stories from the people’s sacred history: the story of the nameless widow of Zarephath who was about to die of starvation, and the story of Naaman the Syrian general who was a leper and. Both were foreigners and both were healed or saved by prophets of Israel.

In the time of the prophet Elijah there was a famine in Israel and in the surrounding lands. During that time there were many poor, starving widows in Israel who needed food. Elijah was sent to the land of Sidon north of Israel where he met a widow who was down to her last scrap of food. She was going to prepare it for her son and herself before they died. Elijah told her not to be afraid and the three of them had enough meal and oil until the famine ended. The crowd in the synagogue started mumbling to each other: "Is he saying God likes Gentiles better than Jews?”

Jesus recalls another story, this one from the time of Elisha. There were many sick lepers in Israel during that time; they received no cure. Instead Elisha cured a leper named Naaman who happened to be the General of the army of one of Israel’s enemies. It turned out that Naaman’s wife had an Israeli slave girl who told her mistress that the prophet Elisha could heal her husband of his leprosy. The general told this to the king of Syria, who sent a letter to the king of Israel. When the king of Israel read the letter he tore his clothes because he feared that Syria was trying to provoke a war. Elisha intervened, healed Naaman & Naaman worshipped Israel’s God.

When people feel “on edge” the last thing they want to hear is a message that invites them to go closer to the edge. The people in Nazareth were living the same reality as the rest of Israel: they were a colony of Rome. Rome was their enemy. They were awaiting a Messiah who was going to liberate them from Rome. What kind of Messiah shows up & announces the day of the Lord's favor without also bringing the day of vengeance that was promised so long ago? When Jesus reminded them that during previous times of crisis, God seemed to favor their enemies they were incensed. One commentator writes, "Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth embedded in their own tradition." (Fred Craddock)
Rabbi Ed Friedman has written a lot about how families and societies mature. One life principle he has discovered is that “there is no way out of a chronically painful condition except by being willing to go through a temporarily more acutely painful phase.” (A Failure of Nerve, p. 202) Applied to families this means that families that are stuck show a low capacity for enduring pain. To the extent that we are motivated to get on with life, we seem to be able to tolerate more pain; in other words, our threshold for pain increases.

Jesus seems to have understood the same thing. He knew that he would provoke more pain by telling the stories he told. But he went ahead and told them because he knew that he had to raise people’s threshold for pain in order to help them mature beyond love for their own tribe to love for “the other.” We don't like being told that our enemies are God's friends. Yet no matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries. God keeps plowing right through them, inviting us to follow or get out of the way. The big lie the world tells us is that the universe is connected by trade agreements, electronic banking, computer networks, shipping lanes, & the seeking of profit — nothing else. Whereas the truth of God is that all creation is one holy web of relationships, and gifts meant for all; creation vibrates with the pain of all its parts because its true destiny is joy.

Mature people understand that “we should expect to be challenged and upset by the truth, by the people sent to yank our chains and upset our equilibrium so we do not confuse our own ideas about God with God." (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by another Way) In the scriptures of all the great religions, Christianity no exception, we see that God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what’s beyond imagination, as outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God “Holy”; “Holy”, not because of some moral quality but because of God’s otherness and difference from us. In the Bible, revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, in what’s different, in the surprise. That’s why the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers: since God is Other, strangers, among all others, are the most likely to be carrying God’s revelation.

This is a difficult message to hear today. We’re being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing’s safe for long. More than any previous generation, we’re being stretched beyond what’s familiar. That is both painful and disorienting. It’s not easy to have our boundaries, values, and ideas under constant redefinition, especially when we believe in eternal truths. Yesterday at the Presbytery meeting we were discussing the deep chasm that exists among Presbyterians about what biblical truth is. One person stood up to tell us how many people had called her because they were confused by the different messages people found in the same Bible. She was calling us to have a unified message. The problem is we’re not there yet. We live in times where we experience the truth as muddy water. We can’t just clean up the water. That’s not going to happen soon. People need to be equipped to live with the muddiness. We’ve never grasped truth deeply enough. We have it in small pieces. That’s why we call it a mystery. The painful truth is that a lot of the pieces we still need to fill out those mysteries lie precisely in what’s foreign to us, in what’s other, strange, and different. That’s what Jesus was saying.

Rabbi Friedman notes that chronically anxious families will seek out those professionals who promise the most comfort, who help them avoid or reduce their pain as quickly as possible, not those who offer the most opportunities for maturation by encouraging them to endure their pain in order to move toward higher goals. The latter group is offering grace around the edges.

I believe that’s what President Obama tried to offer in his State of the Union address last week. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I was deeply inspired by it. The whole time I was listening I knew that the pundits would start tearing it apart as soon as it was finished. And I was not disappointed. Only one commentator I heard spoke positively about the address, and he got roundly criticized for saying that Obama sounded almost post-racist. Is it no longer appropriate for Presidents to try to inspire hope in the nation? Is it inherently naïve to hold out the challenge to live up to our best selves rather than our usual selves? Have we lowered our standards so far that we consider it naïve to continue to call for bipartisanship after a year of seeing it fail? I, for one, was inspired by the vision our President set forth, by the confessional tone of his acknowledgment of failure, and by his willingness to speak uncomfortable truth instead of sweeping it under the rug.

I was pleased that a series of email reflections that I received from colleagues who are pastors of other churches spoke in these tones in response to some short-term wins for progressives in the Presbytery yesterday. The “wins” were that a proposal to split the church along theological lines was rejected and Brian Symonds was advanced to candidacy on his way to ordination. My wise colleagues realize that it is never a true victory when one side wins a particular vote. Pastor after pastor committed to work with those who proposed the way to split the church without a divorce, in order to seek mutual understanding and unity with those who felt like they lost.

So the question I would like you to walk away with today is: Who is the hardest “other” for you to incorporate into your circle? It’s easy to criticize those who have trouble accepting the ones you easily accept. But it doesn’t help to focus on the one that other people call enemy. That only serves to make us feel self-righteous because we don’t consider that enemy an enemy. The only way Jesus’ invitation to love our enemy will heal us is if it taps into the pain of facing the one we call enemy. Let us pray for the power to do that.