[Sermon delivered on Sunday, January 31, 2016 (Epiphany 4 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church– Kansas City, MO at the 5:00pm Mass by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]
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.
Luke 4.29 (NRSV)
Grace and peace be unto you from G-d our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.
Our Gospel lesson this evening is an interesting continuation to last week’s Gospel wherein Jesus opens the scroll from Isaiah with that wonderful narrative of liberation, jubilee, freedom, and salvation. And, as he is so wont to do, Jesus pushes the narrative just past the comfort zone of the congregation and, as a result, they try to push him off a cliff. Just last week the Spirit of the Lord was upon the prophet Yeshayahu, Isaiah and Yeshua, Jesus to bring salvation to the world. Good news, right? This week, the salvation promised by G-d is also going to be given to the undesirables, those who the religious in-crowd deem unworthy. Taken together they reveal an interesting reality that each of us is invited to wrestle with – the Gospel is not always easy to hear.
What makes the Gospel difficult to hear for each of us might be deeply varied and personal, but I would suggest that one thread that runs through each of our interactions with the Gospel is that in the message of salvation each of us is invited to give up that which we hold most dear in order that we might be changed, slowly, into the image of Christ. This process of conversation is the part of Christian discipleship that is seldom discussed in a world of microwave-everything, self-professed self-help professionals, ease, and convenience. Life in Christ is a lifelong process of dying and rising until at least we rise with him, perfect and shining in glory. This painstakingly slow process of conversion is the Gospel’s way of knocking the harsh, jagged corners off of our world and off of each of our hearts and both reveal their original light and goodness – the imago Dei, the image of G-d.
German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer states clearly that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like [Martin] Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call… only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.” There you have it, the crux of the Gospel that is hard to hear, the part of the Gospel that makes us what to push Jesus out of our hearts and lives – that Christ is asking us to die to self, to ego, to sin, in order that we might live abundantly. Too many want the abundant life of Christ without sharing in the cross of Christ. Martin Luther King suggests that “before the crown we wear, the cross we must bear.”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear this Gospel imperative there is a part of me that wants to push Jesus away, run him out of town. And it is just in those moments when the Gospel offends me, when it grates on my very last nerve, that I have learned to pray this prayer attributed to mystic and theological Howard Thurman:
Lord, open unto me
Open unto me — light for my darkness.
Open unto me — courage for my fear.
Open unto me — hope for my despair.
Open unto me — peace for my turmoil.
Open unto me — joy for my sorrow.
Open unto me — strength for my weakness.
Open unto me — wisdom for my confession.
Open unto me — forgiveness for my sins.
Open unto me — love for my hates.
Open unto me — thy Self for my self.
Lord, Lord, open unto me!
In moments when I want to push Jesus away, when Jesus has come to close to my precious idols and threatens to destroy them with the power of his love, when Jesus calls me out of smallness and darkness into wholeness and light, when it seems easier to let sleeping dogs lie than to trouble the waters of my soul, my sincere prayer is “Jesus, I need you to help me! Open unto me, Lord!”
Let me see what I am failing to see, hear what my ears strain to hear, touch what my hands reach out to grasp. Open unto me a new way of being, of understanding, of living, and of living. Open unto me, Lord.
Because, if the truth be told, we cannot negotiate the conversion of ourselves offered to us in the Gospel. This is a no-haggle process. It’s an all or nothing deal. Anything, any part of our lives, that we hold back from the consuming fire of our G-d is an idol, and scripture is very clear what happens to idols.
But we’ve got to start somewhere, even with the smallest desire to be opened to G-d. We may not know all the answers and we may not know how the journey will go, but we can start by saying over and over with our mouths until we begin to get it in our hearts “Open unto me, Lord… Open unto me, Lord… Open unto me… Lord…”
It starts with a desire to be open to G-d, and then slowly letting go, until we’ve been apprehended by the very thing we are pursuing.