A sermon preached for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany on Luke 4:21-30 on Sunday, February 3, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer eleven years ago, a few friends gathered with me in the sanctuary of the church I served, and they laid hands on me and we prayed for healing. I did not receive a miraculous healing and went through surgery, chemo and radiation. When the full effects of chemo hit, I had to stop working, I was bed-ridden, and felt worse than I could have ever imagined, and I became pretty angry at God. In the tradition of the psalmists, I wrote a lament just so I could let it out and let God know how angry I was and how much pain I was in. Here are a few words I wrote:
Don’t you care, God? Does it mean nothing to you that I have served you, given blood, sweat and tears for your church, for your children? Can you ease the pain, the discomfort, the difficulty just a little bit for me? Can you not see the blood-thinning, weak, aching, lost misery of your servant? The psalmist cries with me ‘in Sheol who can give you praise?’ (Psalm 6:5b) Indeed, in chemo hell, who can give you praise?
I was miserable, but it is still a little embarrassing now to admit that I thought I deserved “special treatment” from God—or a relief from some suffering because I was pastor.
I think its human nature to hope, wish for or believe we deserve special treatment. Jesus runs into this problem when he preaches in his own home town of Nazareth in Galilee. At first, they were amazed that this hometown boy became such a learned rabbi and prophet, speaking so eloquently at the synagogue, and hearing healing stories about him from the surrounding area. You can just hear their pride—
Isn’t that Joseph’s boy? So nice to see one of ours do so well! He’s going to put Nazareth on the map! I heard he has the gift of the healing! Just imagine! One of Israel’s newest prophets from up here in Galilee! I have already sent word to my sister Phoebe and her family to get on over here. We are going to feed Jesus a good meal and have him fix us up—Rueben’s back, my knees, and maybe he can straighten out that boy Jethro. I hope Jesus stays in town a good long while because there’s a lot of good that can be done right here at home.
Special treatment. Don’t the people from this prophet’s home town get special treatment, extra healing, more relief from suffering since Jesus is one of their own? Didn’t they all help his family when Joseph couldn’t work for a spell? Doesn’t Jesus owe this town? Aren’t they going to get their due, what they deserve, their fair share of the new religious goodies God has chosen to dispense from Nazareth?
Jesus immediately disabused his family’s closest community friends of the idea that they were going to get special treatment from him. He reminded them that in Israel’s history, Elijah and Elisha carried out their ministry and healings among foreigners--Syrians—people who were traditional enemies of Israel. In other words, Jesus’ mission in the kingdom of God cannot be limited by time, location, geography, political conflict, family lineage or where he grew up. The mission of God’s kingdom reaches out to everyone across boundaries and borders, beyond expectations and projections, outpacing imagined limits and logic. Jesus quite frankly and clearly said, “I am not who you think I am, and not who you want me to be.”
That is the trouble when we do not get the special treatment we want from God—or anyone else. We discover what his hometown community found—a Jesus we do not want. A Jesus who does not fit into our box. A Jesus who does not behave the way the we wanted. When I was in chemo, I had to face the Jesus I did not want, the Jesus who did not miraculously heal me nor relieve my suffering regardless of how many sermons I preached or prayers I offered.
The people of Nazareth got so angry they were ready to throw Jesus off a cliff! Writing God an angry note doesn’t seem so bad next to that! But the real question is, what did the crowd do after Jesus left? Did they just stay angry? Luke does not tell us, so we can formulate our own response when we discover a Jesus we do not want. This moment gives us an opportunity to deal with ourselves and our own expectations, where those expectations come from, and why they have become important to us. That is our soul-work.
If God swooped in and gave us every kind of special treatment we wanted, we would not do our soul-work; we would not turn to God and say, “I am really stuck here, because I wanted something and I am not getting it, and I need help to get over my wrong-headed expectations, and I need help to deal with this really awful situation you are not magically changing for me.”
And that’s what happened to me. I got my anger and frustration and disappointment out, which opened me up to receiving God’s help. Over time, I stopped asking, “Why me and when will God relieve my suffering?” and started thinking, “Why not, me? The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike and so it is, living in a fallen world. I will suffer just as everyone does. What does God want to do with me in this suffering?”
I began to pray for others, to notice all the ways people were helping my family, and I started to pay attention to what I was learning, and what I needed to learn from that experience. I do not think I would have the spirituality I have today or that I would have become a spiritual director if I had not had cancer. I spent hundreds of hours in alone in bed while Dan was at work and the kids were at school because I had no choice, and it taught me how to be still. That was huge learning for a compulsive, perfectionistic, over-functioning “do-er” like me. Now, I don not believe God gave me cancer to help get me there, but God used my situation to mold and shape me. I never would have become the person I am today if God had given me the miraculous healing or the “special treatment” I wanted at first.
I am grateful for the special treatment I did receive—a much deeper and abiding relationship with God which is and continues to be so much better than a one-time zap that would not have taught me anything. That is the real irony of this passage and the spiritual journey for all of us. Jesus tells the people of Nazareth that God’s mission and plan is much bigger than they are, but they miss the message that it includes them! That’s why he went back to Nazareth in the first place! Jesus was saying to them,
You’re in! God’s fulfilling the kingdom and mission right hear among you! You do receive God’s love, you are set free, you are released, God does want a deep and abiding relationship with you—you are just not the only ones. You may not get it in exactly the way want it—but what you receive from God will be even better than your narrowly-imagined box of God’s kingdom anyway!
The point is not that Nazareth gets no special treatment, but rather, that everyone gets special treatment—a deep and abiding personal relationship with a God who wants to be our everything! Your relationship with God can go as deep as you desire, as powerful you ask, as life-giving as you make time for, as meaningful as you pursue! God wants to make sure we understand that what really matters is that we have a loving relationship with him—that’s why God came as a human person in Jesus—so we can have a relationship that gives us the ability to become someone we cannot be on our own, and receive grace we cannot create on our own—we all receive grace upon grace (John 1:16).
Talk about special treatment! Jesus himself is our special treatment—everyone’s special treatment—offering us forgiveness, a special place at the table, and a community where we are valued and loved. We all receive the special treatment of being part of this great work to bring about God’s kingdom—to help others feel God’s special treatment in their suffering—not that they are the only ones that get it—but that they are included in God’s saving love for the world.
So many people believe they are outside of God’s love, that they have to live exactly right, or that the building will fall down if they came in the door of the church. What I love about being Lutheran is that we are called to say, “you’re in! God loves you and forgives you and wants a relationship with you—it’s not just special treatment for us, God has special treatment for you, too, and his name is Jesus.”