The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 31, 2016
Beginning this week, we truly begin to sort ourselves. Iowans will finally go to caucus. Texans will soon start early voting in our primary. Finally, after all these long months, we will really see where it all shakes out.
But more importantly, we’ll see the true divide in our country. And that divide is not between Republicans and Democrats, between Bernie and Hillary, between Trump and Cruz; what I have noticed recently is that the true divide is between those who are for Drive-Thru Ashes, and those who are against Drive-Thru Ashes.
Let me tell you, the division is real, and the vitriol is just as obnoxious as those political attack ads. The Facebook comments are cruel. The emails I get about Drive-Thru Ashes are just nasty. The emails that the bishop gets about Drive-Thru Ashes are probably worse. The division is real.
See, here is what has happened. The general public and many Episcopalians, expect Episcopal congregation to be tame, well-behaved, sort of genteel. And heavens above, Episcopalians surely don’t talk about Jesus in public. That’s just so evangelical. On Ash Wednesday, what good Episcopalians are “supposed” to do is quietly enter our churches, be very polite to one another. We’re supposed to come in here, think about our sinfulness, remember God’s grace, and then begin our Lenten journey to prepare for Easter. Now – that’s not bad. That is a good thing. And many of us will do exactly that and I trust our hearts are strengthened by the experience.
But when we do more than that, when we break out of the box, the box tries to pull us back in. The complaints I get are that we are lazy. We are disrespectful. That we have no reverence. The complaint is that we care too much about people who don’t come to church. The biggest assumption seems to be that after imposing ashes to someone in their car, I ask, “do you want fries with that?” See, what has happened, is that Holy Comforter is rocking the boat.
Now, we are in good company. Our example in boat rocking is the Lord Jesus. He sits down in the synagogue at Nazareth, which is his hometown. And the people of his hometown expect him to be the boy they used to know. The son of Joseph. But Jesus is more than that. And the box starts pulling him back in. No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.
See, what’s happening is that the Jews at Nazareth are waiting for deliverance. They’re waiting for salvation. They’re waiting for God to help them get rid of the oppressive Roman Empire. So Jesus shows up, and he preaches that he is the one anointed to let the captives to go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to be their Messiah. And the people are on board. They love it! Finally, God is coming to the rescue.
But then Jesus takes a turn. He reminds the people that God is not just for the Jews. God is for all people. Salvation and release and recovery of sight is not just for Israel, but for all nations. Jesus reminds the synagogue at Nazareth that when times were bad in the past, God did not just help out the Jews. Elijah the prophet went to a widow, a Gentile, a non-Jew, and helped feed her during a famine. And so did Elisha. He helped Naaman the Syrian, who was not a Jew. Through the power of God, Elisha cleansed Naaman of his leprosy. In other words, Jesus is telling the people at Nazareth that yes, he has come to rescue them, but not only them, all people. All people. Even the ones who aren’t in the synagogue. He rocks the boat.
So, what happens? They try to kill Jesus. The story says the crowd take Jesus to the brow of the hill so that they might hurl him off the cliff. The system has a hard time coping with change.
Now, I am not saying that I am like Jesus because I’ve gotten a few snarky emails about Drive-Thru Ashes. It’s bigger than that. This type of experience has happened to all of us. You went off to college, and when you came back you were different, and your parents didn’t understand you. You quit being a drunk, and all your old drinking buddies didn’t get you anymore. You have discovered who God created you to be, your lifestyle is different, and your family freaks out. You’ve had an epiphany, you’ve had a conversion experience, you’ve come to know the Lord Jesus and you know that you have changed. But when you go back to your old friends, to your old community, to the old system, they haven’t changed. They expect you to be the old you.
And that sword cuts both ways. Your kid has gone off to college, and they came back different. Your wife, your husband, they’ve had a spiritual experience and they just seem different. The world around us changes. The church changes. And our immediate reaction is to try to force it to go back to the way it was. To the way we knew it. Like the crowd at Nazareth who knew Jesus as a boy but now don’t understand him, we see people and things and churches change in our lives, and we want them to go back to the way that they were.
All of us, we have all been on both the giving and receiving end of change. We talk all the time about how we want other people to accept us for who we are, even when we’ve changed. But it’s our sin that doesn’t extend the same to others.
What breaks my heart in all of this, is that we seem to have forgotten who God is. God is the gracious one. God is eternally full of grace. God’s mission to welcome the insiders and the outsiders, the Jews and the Gentiles, men, women, children, traditional Episcopalians and boat rockers alike. In Christ, those old distinctions have been put away. As followers of the gracious God we must be willing to give the same grace, the same inexhaustible grace, that has been given to us. A bishop preached on this recently, he said: if you preach a vengeful, judgmental, angry God, nobody seems to mind. If you preach an inclusive, merciful, loving, and generous God, everybody gets mad at you.
Think back to the Gospel of Luke. Here, this morning, the crowd tries to kill Jesus but he simply moves on. But this story is just a harbinger of things to come. Again, Jesus will find himself scorned by a crowd. Again, Jesus will find himself on a hilltop. But next time, he will be on a cross. And just as before, Jesus will be gracious, even to the end. He says, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Words of grace.
And it is for grace that we rock the boat on Ash Wednesday. It is for the literal hundreds of people who drive onto our campus to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. It is for the woman who says to me, “my husband has just died, and I’m all alone.” It is for the mother who is driving her son, an Iraq veteran to the VA, and she says to me, “pray for my son, because he’s not here anymore.” We don’t do this to get on television, or to get some notoriety in the newspaper. We rock the boat for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of grace.
When the Holy Spirit is calling you, do not change or rock the boat for your sake, but for the sake of Jesus. And remember, transformation takes time. Our hearts and minds are not turned toward God in an instant, but over a lifetime. Take heart, be courageous. Forgive yourself, just as God has forgiven you. And please remember, that the church is called to be the community in which we embrace your change, and your growth, even as we change and grow. This is the community that is called by God to be adaptable.
And when people around us are changing, when our family and friends rock the boat, do not respond in bitterness, respond in grace. Before casting judgment, first see how it is the Holy Spirit is working. Again, the community where this should take place primarily, is in the church. To be that gathering of gracious people that allow for the Holy Spirit’s work to bubble up in us. To give grace, even as we have received it.
I ask you now to finish with me in prayer: Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.