Sunday, February 3, 2013

This Guy

This Guy
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 3, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 4: 22-30 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.[1]  

Tough crowd, don't you think? In a the span of a paragraph, 10 short verses, Jesus goes from "All spoke well of  him" to "They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. What is it? What does he say that turns these tables? What does he say that leads him to the cliff? What button does he push?
First let's see what he said to gain their favor at the beginning, making "all speak well of him." Last week's gospel reading in the lectionary was the scripture that precedes this one, and I wanted to save it for this week, so I chose the epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians instead. Let's take a look at the beginning of this story. Luke 4, starting from v. 14: Jesus had just begun his ministry having successfully completed his temptation in the desert.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18     “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[2]

To this they respond with speaking well of him, but then he goes on and they want to throw him off of a cliff. In this passage he is talking about fulfilling the prophecy, and proclaiming the year of the Lord's hearing, all good news for these folks, but his role is simply to proclaim, and it seems that proclaiming is safe, proclaiming is all good for them, it doesn't resonate with a challenge to them, so they're cool with it. They're oppressed and poor and seeking God's favor, so a proclaimer of such is exactly what they need, but then comes the prophet talk, and this is all too much. Jesus drops the prophet word to them in reference to himself, then he compares himself to Elijah and Elisha, and the people just can't handle it. You can almost hear them. . . Who does this guy think he is? Isn't this guy Joseph the carpenter's son? Where does this guy get off calling himself a prophet? Then they start looking around for the cliff.
This is the second time I've preached on this story from Luke, since being the pastor here. Just over a year ago, I focused on the idea of "no prophet is accepted in his hometown." Last year I brought out the idea that what we see is connected to what we are looking for, and that since all they were looking for was the carpenter's son, that is all they saw. Coming back to this story a year later I have been drawn in another direction, seeing much more in the context. I want to look at today what it is that makes us this way. By us I mean human beings and by this way I mean cynical in the face of greatness which poses a challenge to us. What is it that makes us not believe when we are in the presence of greatness? What is it that brings out the cynic in all of us? And at the heart of it all why does greatness seems to challenge us, and why rather than standing up to the challenge, we tear the greatness down, or in this case, try to throw it off the cliff.
It seems that there is something within human beings that wants everyone to be average, that when someone gets too big, we want to knock them down, back to everyone's level. Is it envy? Is it jealousy? Is it a way to make up for our own feelings of inadequacy? Is it even something more in us, or rather less, does it come from an emptiness we have inside us? I see it all the time around me as a teacher, and I remember it from my student days. When one kid has all the answers in a discussion he is mocked. When a kid makes the right choices he is teased for being too good. When a kid's grades are higher than everyone else, he tends to hide it, lest he is ostracized for excelling. I see it so much. Why do kids do that to each other? Keeping that kid from becoming too uppity, is that really what we mean by humility? Is that kid being humble when he hides his test, or is it out of fear? I have a few more examples in case we think it is only kids who act this way.
Have you all noticed the news lately, or at least the sports news? There has been much press on Ray Lewis lately. He's retiring, and since he announced his retirement, his team, the Ravens have been playing like a team on a mission. They have been dominant, where up to that point they had been kind of floundering, good, but not great. They won their division, but did not have all that great of a record, so they've had to play in each round of the playoffs. Now since their playoff run began, you began to hear about aspects of Ray Lewis's life and career that had been silent for so long. When he was young in the league, the year before his first Super Bowl appearance in 2000, he had some legal trouble because he was involved in a double homicide. It's hard to tell the facts of the case, I do not want to get into the facts of the case, but the bottom line charges were not filed against him, and he was a witness in the trial. 13 year later it is hard to know exactly what happened, but the point I want to make is, why now? Why bring it up now? It has not been talked about much in recent years. He has been an exemplary citizen and ambassador for the game. His foundation in Baltimore has helped hundreds, or more, of underprivileged kids. He has been a great leader for his teammates. Why when his career is again at the top do we bring up the negative of the past? Why do we do it like that? Now I'm not saying that Ray Lewis is like Christ, far from it, but there is greatness in him, and the amazing accomplishment of his emotional leadership taking the Ravens back to the Super Bowl, why do we need to knock it down? What do we gain, by saying "can you believe they let this guy play, he's a murderer."
Another possible story, and one in an opposite category, this one of fallen, challenging our faith in the greatness of people is Lance Armstrong and his recent admission of taking drugs and cheating as a cyclist.  Lance Armstrong had been the greatest cyclist in the world. He had won more Tour de France races than anyone else. He became a world figure of real fame, but his legend grew when the story spread that he had testicular cancer, and overcame it, and continued to win tour de France titles. He became a hero to many. His "Live Strong" campaign and company raised millions of dollars for cancer research, but his glory fell apart in the last few years under suspicion of using performance enhancing drugs, which he vehemently denied for a long period of time, until a few weeks ago, he came clean to Oprah about cheating, completing his fall from grace. People were outraged at him, and his cheating, but even more so his attitude and behavior, which was aggressive and nasty, attacking anyone who accused him. People felt like their inspiration from him was all a lie, leaving them disillusioned and betrayed. Can you believe this guy, he cheated, and he lied, I'm so disappointed.
Are these two stories connected and how are they connected to this story about Jesus? To me the common thread is mob justice, the court of popular opinion, and the dangers of group think, on one hand, and the human inclination to create and destroy idols on the other. Public opinion is a fickle thing, and more and more it is shaped by a media that suffers both from short term amnesia and selective moral outrage, both of which leave them just barely above the fray and thus just outside of having to be accountable for what they say. A week later and everyone has forgotten anyway. The big question that always seems to surface when you criticize the media though is whether they create or reflect the culture. Not wanting to debate it, I'll say at least for this morning that they reflect the culture. One clue for this is that history has shown that the mob doesn't really need television to be fickle. It only took a week remember for shouts of Hosanna to turn to shouts of crucify him for Jesus. So we go back and forth loving an idolizing men like Ray Lewis and Lance Armstrong and feeling satisfied, proven right, vindicated, when they fall from grace. You could say the same for Tiger Woods is another example. Do we build up these idols just to see them fall? Why do we take joy in their downfall? Then once they fall, we build them back up again. It seems they are again safely flawed like the rest of us. At least until they get to be too great again, just like Ray Lewis the last two weeks.
I think we have trouble with greatness because it makes us uncomfortable. We like our idols flawed.  We like them after all like us, and as long as they are flawed we can be the ones in control of how we think of them. If they get to be too great we can always remind ourselves that, nope they have their problems too. We can look up to them, but they don't have to challenge us. They may be good, and they can inspire me to be good, but they aren't perfect after all. Because there is a danger in a perfect idol. Just look at the way people have reacted to the fall from grace of Lance Armstrong. They are hurt, they are disillusioned, they are wondering what it was all about, they are wondering if it was ever real. Yes it's much better to stay in control of your idols.
I keep throwing that idol term around. I do so on purpose. The pun is intended. I very much mean idol in the sense of idolizing heroes, like I would say growing up Bo Jackson was my idol, or Cal Ripken, or Gary Clark. I mean idol in that innocent way, but I also mean the church meaning of idol. I said that it is important that you keep control of your idols, lest you become challenged. The idea about idols is that they are human creations, created by us and then worshipped by us. We create something to believe in, and then we do, but we can never forget it is us that created it in the first place. No matter how much you try to forget, it is you who give the idol it's power, and thus you are never really challenged by it, you are never really pushed beyond your limits of faith, it never really changes your life, because you know deep down that it isn't real. But if you can forget, and you really believe  you can become vulnerable. Faith is vulnerability. Faith allows for you to get hurt. Cynicism is much safer. There are a lot of people who really believed in Lance Armstrong, and will have trouble believing again. It is that feeling of hurt in us that doesn't let us believe in Ray Lewis, and it is that kind of hurt in us that doesn't let us believe in Christ, and that kind of hurt that caused those people to want to throw him off the cliff.
I found this show on HBO that is now in its second season, but the first season was available on demand, so I started at the beginning. I've only watched the first couple episodes, but I was intrigued by the idea. The show is called, "Enlightened."  This woman has an emotional breakdown, where she flips out at work, and causes a big ugly scene. This scene is how the first episode started. Then she goes away to a therapy retreat in Hawaii where she finds clarity and peace. But like all escapes must this one ends and she has to return home back to her life, the very same life that drove her crazy in the first place, but now she is armed with her new found faith about herself and her healed holistic new world view. The show revolves around her trying to live out her new found enlightenment back in the darkness of her world. It is a train wreck of a show, but so far, and like I said only a few episodes in, there does seem to be hope that she will slowly solidify her very surface oriented transformation and make it stick. I'm hopeful at least because the show is very realistic, it could go either way.
The reason I bring the show up, is that it consistently asks the question of whether her change is legitimate. Do we believe that people can change? Do we believe that people can be redeemed? Do we believe that there is more to people than what we see today, that there is so much more within that can be found at first glance? Do we believe that someone like Ray Lewis could make mistakes when he is younger and from those mistakes become a positive figure in the world? Do we believe that though our idols fall that the legacy of what they inspired can still mean something? Is it possible that God can work through a steroid user with an aggressive narcissistic messiah complex to inspire people to overcome their cancer and to believe? Is it possible that a carpenter's son from Nazareth could actually be a prophet, Messiah, Son of God, redeemer of the world, that he is not a created idol, but actually our createor? And if the answer to these questions is yes, will you rise to the challenge of being better than you are, or would you rather throw that belief over the cliff, remaining in the safety of unchallenged cynicism? Have you been burned believing before, and would you rather not put yourself out on that limb again? Does belief challenge who you are, what you do, how you view people, and how you view life? If you believe that people can change then why not allow yourself to be inspired by the amazing stories of redemption that are all around us, and why allow that faith to be challenged when people prove false. They may, they do, they will, don't let it discourage your faith, and don't fall into the trap of only choosing safe and flawed idols. Though humans are flawed, Christ is great, and through Christ all things are possible. God give us the strength to believe that, lest we wind up throwing our faith, our hope, our redemption, our salvation off the cliff. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 4:22-30). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 4:16-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.