Epiphany 4 January 31, 2016 - The Bishop Richard Jaech
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Christ Episcopal Church
January 31, 2016
Bishop Richard Jaech, synod bishop of the Southwestern Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
We have a very dramatic, agitated Gospel reading this morning. It’s a direct continuation of last weeks Gospel. Jesus is just starting his ministry. He is in his hometown of Nazareth in the synagogue on the Sabbath and he preaches his very first sermon, his inaugural sermon. At first, his home town crowd likes his sermon, and then they get so angry that they try to throw him over a cliff. What happened?
As you remember from last week. Jesus reads to them a passage from the prophet Isaiah,
““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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This was a beloved passage to all Israelites and it was certainly refreshing and healing news to the people of Nazareth. As small town farmers and tradesmen, they were undoubtedly among those taxed into poverty by Herod and Caesar. They were the poor needing some good news. They were the captives and the oppressed wanting release from Roman control. They were the landless who would want God to bring a Jubilee year when everybody would get their land back who had been forced to sell it because of poverty.
So their initial response was that they were impressed with the gracious words that came out of Jesus’ mouth. Plus, he was one of theirs. He was a hometown boy made good.
But then Jesus bursts those good feelings by putting something in their face that he knew would upset them. “Look, you’ve got to know this from the start,” he says to them. “We may be all home boys together, because we are all Nazarenes, we are all Israelites. But God’s love, God’s justice goes out a lot farther than to just us. It goes out to even those we call enemy.”
Jesus was redefining “home”. He was redefining who is God’s family. He gave them two examples from the time of the prophets. “Remember in Elijah’s time, when there was a famine and there were a lot of starving widows in Israel, but God chose to feed the widow in Sidon (now Lebanon). And remember in Elisha’s time when there were all kinds of lepers in Israel needing healing, but God chose to heal Naaman, the general of the army of Syria?
The antagonism between Syria and Israel was as intense in Jesus’ day as it is today. For God to heal Naaman, the Syrian general, would feel as offensive to an Israelite as God healing President Assad of Syria today, or an ISIS commander. Jesus, in his hometown, is bursting their notion of how wide their home stretches and who belongs in their home and who God includes as part of the family.
Jesus is saying to all of them, “The center of the Gospel is grace. God creates and cherishes and values each one of us, not based on who we are or what we have done or not done. Rather God loves us a free gift springing from God’s limitless grace. Therefore, as we are filled and blessed by that grace, so God also calls us and expects us to love and cherish each other, including the neighbor we see as enemy.
If Jesus were standing here with us today, what might he challenge and confront us about. When I look at this text, it brings up an issue that is perhaps uncomfortably parallel to an issue we are wrestling with today. The Nazarenes didn’t want Jesus to bring Syrians into their home, and America isn’t sure if we want Syrians coming in to our home either. That’s a hotly debated topic. I’m guessing that we have different opinions among ourselves here about bringing in Syrian refugees. Immigration is a hot topic in general. Immigration from Mexico, Central America, Somalia. But given the warfare and terrorist activity carried out by a minority of Muslim extremists, there is a particularly strong reaction to letting in Syrian refugees. At a broader level, there is a general suspicion in our country against anyone who is Muslim. We are even hearing a recommendation by some that no Muslims be allowed into our country at all.
Let me tell you a story from my own Lutheran history, if I may, that influences my thinking on this matter. My family comes from the German branch of the Lutheran church. I am thankful for my German Lutheran heritage in many ways, for example J. S. Bach and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, the most grievous and shameful chapter in the history of the German Lutheran church was when it did virtually nothing to stop the Nazi murder of 6 million Jewish people during WWII. Yesterday, January 30, was the anniversary of Adolf Hitler being sworn in as chancellor of Germany in 1933. Hitler’s promise was to make Germany powerful again, make Germany great again.
Following the First World War, the German economy was in shambles. The German people were unemployed and starving. Hitler’s promise sounded so attractive: to make Germany powerful again. But Hitler said that the cause of Germany’s problems were the Jewish citizens. Jewish people, he said, were untrustworthy; they were disloyal and dangerous. So, said Hitler, they must be separated and eliminated.
It started with verbal attacks on Jewish people as they walked down the streets of towns. Then, synagogues were painted with insults, then store windows broken, then laws changed which severely limited the rights of Jewish citizens, then finally came the arrests and the trains that took families to Auschwitz and Dachau and many other concentration camps. And, except for a few Lutheran leaders who specifically spoke out in defense of their Jewish neighbors, the German Lutheran Church went along with it. Whether in disbelief or fear or outright support for Hitler, the Lutheran church said and did nothing.
I should add that the German Lutheran church was not the only ones who were silent. The US government clearly fought against Hitler’s military aggression and we went to war to stop him. However, the US was silent about Jewish persecution. Our government denied Jewish people the chance to escape and immigrate to the US. For example, in the years leading up to the war, the family of Anne Frank in Amsterdam applied for a visa to come to the US when they knew their lives were in danger. However, the commonly held belief in the US at the time was that Jewish people were dangerous and prone to violence. Therefore, the US State Department denied a visa to the Frank family and to thousands of other Jewish families, who then died in the camps.
Why do I bring up that piece of my German Lutheran history? Because we cannot let it happen again. We, in particular the Christian church, cannot again let an entire group of people, this time the Muslims, be labeled bad and dangerous and then let them be subject to insult and violence and exclusion. This is not simply an ethical matter, which it is. It is not simply political matter, which it is. It is at its heart a matter of the Gospel. It is connected to everything that Jesus said and did. In Jesus, the heart of God opens wide to us with life and blessing, not on the basis of accomplishments or color or what ethnic or religious group we are, but out of grace. God comes to each one of us and says, “You are mine. You are my dear ones…you are my dear daughter, my dear son.” That is the gift God gives us. And then, as we enjoy that grace, God calls us to live that grace and welcome and cherish those around us, particularly those who are persecuted and pushed to the outside. Jesus said to his Nazareth neighbors, “You’re going to need to open up your home, including to the Syrians. That’s how God’s love works.”
I am very grateful that many people within our Christian community are speaking in behalf of our Muslim neighbors and reaching out in support. I especially thank and appreciate your Episcopal bishop, Bishop Greg Rickel, for all the work that he is doing in this area. If you haven’t visited your diocese’s website recently, I encourage you to do that. Bishop Rickel has some very good words and resources for you. Go to: ecww.org. Then scroll down the page and you will find an article entitled: Meet our Muslim Neighbors. Click on that and you will see a very helpful and moving blog in which Bishop Rickel first describes the many instances of Muslim women and men being threatened and insulted in Washington State. Then he inserts a video of a conversation he had with one of the leaders of the Islamic community in Western Washington. In a very open dialogue, they talk about how Muslims and Christians can be neighbors together?
I agree with Bishop Rickel that the most important first step we can take in supporting and defending Muslim people is simply by introducing ourselves and getting to know them. There are some good examples of that already happening.
As you may know there is a mosque, an Islamic Center, not too far from here on Bridgeport Way, near the Narrows Bridge just a few blocks from St. Andrew Episcopal Church. Pastor Jan Ruud, of St. Mark’s Lutheran, and Rabbi Bruce Kadden, from Temple Beth El, visited the new Imam at the Islamic center, who is very friendly and welcomes having inter-religious groups visiting their mosque and learning together.
Last week I visited the Islamic Center in Olympia. Once again, it was a very cordial conversation. Their Islamic Center is made up of Muslim people from 32 different countries. They are honest that they feel a lot of anxiety right now, not knowing how they will be treated by others.
Finally, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee service, which has been helping refugees from many countries for 75 years, just announced that they will help 1,300 refugees settle in Washington and Oregon during this calendar year, including 30 Syrian refugee families.
We in the Lutheran community would certainly welcome all of you in the Episcopalian community to work together.
We live in a complicated time. We live in a time of suspicion, violence and terrorism. It is appropriate that we take those threats seriously and ask the Spirit’s guidance for how to best take reasonable precautions and create better safety for all people. Yet we must be watchful that our fear does not blind us to the vision and promise which God has for us. By grace, we are each one of us loved by God. By grace, we are all God’s children together. And so in grace, Jesus calls us to open our home to others. That is the Way of Life to which Jesus calls us. Amen.