Mother Jane Brady-Close’s Sermon for 4th Sunday After the Epiphany

[Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30]

          There are three themes I’d like for us to consider this morning–the first from Paul, the second from Luke, and the third from Jeremiah.

St. Paul writes: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends… And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. [1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, 13]

It seems to me that love–even more than faith and hope–requires embodiment or incarnation. In his visit this weekend to the Diocese of Central Florida, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said: “If you think of love only as a sentiment, it is hard to see how it can have a great impact, but if you understand that that sentiment leads to commitment, a commitment to seek the good, the welfare, the well-being of the other” ahead of one’s own self-interest, then “it’s a commitment that actually looks something like God, who the Bible says is love.”[i] Bishop Curry also spoke last October of love at the revival of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, quoting the words of William Ewart Gladstone, he admitted through the lens of Jimi Hendrix: We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.[ii]

And next to the gospel. I have been trying to understand the volatile encounter between Jesus and those in the synagogue. It is the only place in the gospels where we find the word rage (θυμός, -οû), meaning “a strong passion of soul or mind …used for divine, satanic, and human wrath,” a word used of “anger that boils up and subsides again.”[1] It is ironic that this rage occurs in the place where the holy community gathers. And the intensity strikes me as not unlike what we see in the most volatile areas of the world, including our own – the passions springing up that lead to meanness, to death and to destruction among people and factions closely related that most of us who do not share these particular cultures would find hard to distinguish.

I went over to Gladstone’s Library – Britain’s only prime ministerial library which offers residential accommodations for a month as chaplain – to serve as chaplain for the month of January with some trepidation. It’s a remarkable institution where conversation among guests is the norm when they are not engaged in research and writing. I wondered how I might possibly explain the developments in the U.S., only to realize that Brits were struggling to explain the developments with Brexit. We were both, to a great extent, coming up empty.

A parallel story in slightly different form appears in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, but occurs at a later point in Jesus’ ministry not as here, in Luke, at the beginning. Our story today occurs just after Jesus emerges unscathed and strengthened by his sojourn in the wilderness. There Satan tempted Jesus with all the allures of the world playing on the insecurities humans face about themselves, seeking to derail him, to put him off balance.

Jesus’s hearers are astounded at his teaching, calling his words gracious, until they speak, just after that, the words meant to bring him down, to diminish him, to keep him in his place. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” in Luke.  In Mark it may be even more of a clear insult “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?”

          In Middle Eastern cultures such as Jesus’s, a most basic lens is that of honor and shame, where honor “meant everything, including survival.” One commentary on the gospels suggests: “Since the honor of one’s family determines potential marriage partners as well as with whom one can do business, what functions one can attend, where one can live, and even what religious role one can play, family honor must be defended at all costs. The smallest slight or injury must be avenged, or honor is permanently lost.”[2] Surely those in Jesus’ home town knew that his birth had come too early, maybe taunted him with it all his life as a way of keeping him in his place. Bullying surely is not a recent phenomenon. People – especially women –are still being killed today for reasons of honor and shame.

          Jesus responds with a seeming insult of his own – putting those in the synagogue in their place, as it were, with his biblical stories of outsiders being the recipients of the healing ministrations of the prophets–rather than those who might consider themselves entitled to them by birth. Maybe it’s not so different today.

But then the amazing thing is described. As those in the synagogue are about to hurl Jesus off the cliff on which the town is located, Jesus simply passes “through the midst of them and went on his way.” Almost as if he came to himself, to his true self, which is not subject to the boundaries and restrictions most of us perceive. This has the same feeling for me as Jesus’s post-resurrection experiences, as he appears and disappears in complete freedom. He was the one who could talk to the Almighty with the intimate word “Abba,” (Daddy), the one who did not need to engage with those who would never be able to understand him fully precisely because they thought they knew him too well or could only know him as a reflection of themselves. So Jesus simply moves on. Later he would tell his disciples pretty much the same thing:  Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them. (Luke 9:5)

          And now to Jeremiah. On one of the nights when I was charged with securing and locking up the library, I pulled from one of the reference sections a guide to Irish literature, to read about a cousin of my mother’s. My first husband and I had visited Ireland with her in 1997.  We found her great aunt Cassie’s former hotel, now a private home, where Mom had spent the summer of 1928 on a visit with her grandfather. We discovered we’d missed by five days a delegation which had put a plaque outside mentioning this cousin, Seamus MacManus, and his founding of the Donegal chapter of the Gaelic Athletic Association there. I was reminded how my mother reflected one evening during that trip on how well I’d turned out, as if it was a great surprise to her. I suppose she meant to give me a compliment and I realize to some extent I was a late-bloomer, but it was horrifying to me. As I listen more to others, I have come to regard this now as almost a prototypical parent comment, surprise and amazement at the accomplishments of one’s child, maybe a bit perplexed that he or she may be manifesting gifts they can’t claim to have shaped themselves.

I do not think this is simply a sort of false modesty on the part of parents, not wanting to take too much credit.  I think it also stem from lack of reflection on the powerful call of vocation of a God who knows us intimately, who consecrates us even before we are formed in the womb. It is God who equips us with spiritual, intellectual, and all gifts necessary for whatever work God calls us to do and for whatever life God gives us to live and to celebrate, however surprising, rarified, daring, or dangerous as it may be. Parents help in this process of course, and in powerful ways, but they can’t really control it. It is in embracing our identities as children of God who are given unique callings that we participate in God’s work of transformation, healing a broken, volatile world of people who have been hurt and shamed, building up a true community of love and truth.     

          In our reading from Jeremiah we encounter a God whose knowledge of us is deep, intimate, and primal, going beyond the knowledge even any parent has for a child:  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”  We encounter God who calls us above all to love. We meet a God who tells us “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid…” This “do not be afraid” is a frequent theme in the scriptures – no doubt because we are so often afraid and our fear can make us block out God’s call, relentless as it sometimes is, compared to what we feel is the world’s call on us – such as Satan offered Jesus — that may seem more manageable. But God also has given us the gift of free will; accepting one’s vocation is an act of choice as well as of grace.

          Do any of you know Denise Levertov’s poem “Annunciation” about Mary, the mother of Jesus[iii]?

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Later in this poem is her question, perhaps her challenge:

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?….

More often
those moments
     when roads of light and storm
     open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

Surely God will love us whether or not we follow God’s particular invitation. Accepting of our vocations and those of others require faith, hope, and love, love manifested in the practices of our lives and in our communities. They may be hard won and inconvenient—incomprehensible to some, irrelevant to others.

However, maturity of faith and understanding will give us not only a greater appreciation for God and God’s work in the world, but also the self understanding of who and whose we are and the courage to accept God’s plan for us, to keep on that path so the gates remain open. Moreover, maturity of faith will sustain us at whatever precipices we suddenly find ourselves approaching and then enable us to pass, like Jesus, unscathed and at peace, even in the midst of people who cannot understand us. It’s in psalm 23, as well: “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Rooted in God’s love and God’s call, we can claim and embrace our true identities as people already known, claimed, and consecrated by God, and as people whose lives embody the love of God for ourselves, for others, for the earth. In that is our only true freedom and ours and the world’s salvation. Amen. 

©3 February 2019 by Jane T. Brady-Close

 Friberg lexicon, entry for θυμός.

[2] Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), p. 213.



[iii] Quoted in