Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon for IV Epiphany

St Christopher's, Rantoul--Luke 4:21-32

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I took water for granted. Every city or village had its own iconic water tower, and it never occurred to me to wonder very much how the water got there. All I knew was, I turned on a tap, and out came clean drinkable water. When I went out to southern California for college, and then, seven years later moving to Oregon in the middle of a drought, and encountering prayers for rain when I went to church on Sunday, my awareness was raised. Water is a precious commodity, and it’s not just automatically available. They’re having a wet winter in California so far this year, which is welcome, but even that won’t be enough to officially break the drought.

Water, like fire, is absolutely essential to our lives, but has the potential to put our lives in danger as well. It has tremendous power, and often, it seems, a veritable will of its own that can triumph over the most ingenious of human devices.  I have often observed, with fascination, while hosing off a driveway or watering a garden, how water is determined to find the quickest and most efficient route downhill to the sea. If it can move a leaf or a twig or a pebble or a log out of its way, it will. If water can’t move an obstacle in its path, it will break it apart. And if it can’t break it apart, it will wear it down. And in the meantime, it will go around it. If water finds a low spot, it will settle there and form a puddle or a lake. But the second it rises above the low spot, it seizes the opportunity to resume its relentless downhill journey to sea level. Since water is both dangerous and necessary, human beings try to find ways of taking advantage of the fact that it will do what it will do. We build levees and dams to keep water out of populated areas. Or we dredge channels and dig reservoirs to deepen and collect water for human use. 

What a wonderful metaphor water is for the way we experience God. God is absolutely essential to human life; he holds each of our lives in the balance every second of every day. He can sometimes be a nuisance. And his power cannot be resisted; he will flow where he will flow. But the human race has learned ways of shielding itself from God when we think he might be a bother and we’d prefer not to deal with him. We have become adept at building spiritual levees and dams that “protect” us from God. Consciously or unconsciously, we do things that block the effect on our lives of God’s power and presence.

And this is exactly what the people of the village of Nazareth were doing when Jesus came to pay a visit on his hometown. You will recall, last week we read “part one” of the story of this visit as recorded for us by St Luke, and today we read the conclusion. Jesus shows up in the synagogue, and reads a passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah about captives being set free and the blind recovering their sight and good news being proclaimed to the oppressed. Then he sits down and calmly declares that he is, in his own person, the fulfillment of this passage. 

At first, the folks were kind of proud of a hometown boy who made good on the outside. But then the implications of what he is saying begin to sink in, and their pride turns to anger. “Wait a minute! We know this kid. We watched him grow up, just down the street; his dad was a carpenter. He’s a nice kid, but let’s get real — Messiah material he’s not! If he thinks he’s such hot stuff, why doesn’t he do one of those miracles here like he’s been doing in other places, huh?!” But they didn’t really want Jesus to perform a miracle. They just wanted to trivialize and marginalize him, to blow him off. Jesus was so familiar to them that they could not accept him as he really was.

You and I are by no means immune from similar behavior. We might not have watched Jesus grow up in the house down the block, but he is surely a familiar enough name and personality — certainly if we ourselves were raised in the church. The people of Nazareth were so familiar with Jesus that they couldn’t stand the idea of him actually affecting and changing their lives. So they tried to do away with him by throwing him off a cliff.

We may not be quite so bold, but we do nevertheless try to “tame” Jesus, the way a dam “tames” a wild river. We build levees to keep him where we can see him, but from a safe vantage point, without running the risk of having him flood our lives. If we let Jesus flood our lives, then we may actually have to change something. We may have to break a bad habit or two, or cultivate a couple of good ones. We may have to deal honestly with our own “pet” sins, the petty grudges and prejudices that we nurse along and rationalize because they make us feel so good. We may have to look at our politics in the light of the gospel, rather than interpreting the gospel in the light of our politics. We may need to do something about the clear teaching of scripture that the water of baptism is thicker than the blood of any human family ties, that the church is our family, and we are called to relate to that family with intense loyalty and affection. We may need to change a whole l0t of our priorities. All this and more may happen if we let Jesus flood our lives. So we invest appropriate energy in protecting the integrity of our dams and levees, and, if necessary, pile on sandbags.

But water, as we know, will go where it will go. If it is blocked in one place, it will find an alternate route. And Jesus, who is himself the water of life, will flow where he will flow. If he is blocked at Nazareth, he can always go to Capernaum. And if he is blocked in Israel, he can always go to the Gentiles. What really got the Nazarenes worked up was when Jesus made reference to two examples from the history of Israel when God revealed himself to and through Gentiles: when a hungry prophet Elijah was miraculously fed by a poor widow in the neighboring land of Zarapheth, and when Elijah’s successor, Elisha, was used by God to heal Naaman, a Syrian army commander, of leprosy. The implication was that Jesus was not going to let himself be restricted by the dams and levees built by the citizens of Nazareth, or by the nation of Israel.

Neither will he be restricted by the dams and levees that we put up. The living water will seek out thirsty ground. If I put up a dam, Jesus will work on wearing me down, but in the meantime, he will flow on by me to you, and to the next person. If St Christopher’s puts up a levee, Jesus will flow on down to Emmanuel and St John the Divine and Holy Trinity. If the Episcopal Church in the United States isn’t ready to receive the ministry of Christ, he will spend that energy elsewhere, like, say, Tanzania. I visited seven churches in seven days in the Diocese of Tabora in 2013, and I’m still fairly sure I’ve confirmed more people there than I have within the Diocese of Springfield! Maybe Africa is to us what Capernaum was to Nazareth.

Jesus is motivated by his relentless active love for those who are weighed down by the stresses and anxieties of this life, those who are prisoners of the power of sin, those who are blind to any hope for the future. He will find the most direct and efficient route there is to those who are ready to receive his love, those who are ready to accept his ministry. Like a roaring wave, Jesus will sometimes crash through the barriers that we erect. But he will not flow uphill. Water doesn’t flow uphill. Jesus will not forcibly invade the hearts of those who do not recognize their need for him and have no desire for him. He will just move on to the next town, to Capernaum, where his ministry is received joyfully. 

But how much better it is not to build barriers — dams and levees — in the first place. How much better it is, instead, to dredge channels and dig reservoirs, to invite Jesus to flow and to fill and, indeed, to flood our lives with his love. We dredge channels for living water when we are faithful in Sunday and holy day worship, when daily prayer is one of the habits of our heart. We dig reservoirs for the water of life when we study the scriptures and commit ourselves to a life of service within the community of the church. For excess winter rain, dams and levees are a good idea, as our brothers and sisters in the southern part of the diocese found out about a month ago. But with the wild and untamed ministry of the son of God, they don’t work so well. There’s no use trying to tame Jesus. He won’t be tamed. If we allow him to flow freely, it may be a wild ride at times, but we won’t drown. On the way, we will see some marvelous signs and wonders, as the people at Capernaum did. And in the end, we will be restored to health and life and wholeness. It’s a ride I do not want to miss. Praised be Jesus, Christ. Amen.

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