Following God

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2010. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and Luke 4:21-30.

On Sundays such as this, when there are inches of snow on the ground, the District doesn’t seem to do much in the way of cleaning the streets, and Metro is delayed… many of you probably have some pretty interesting stories to tell about how you got to church. Maybe you walked and saw things you ordinarily might not see. Maybe you took a cab and had an interesting driver. Maybe you were helped by the kindness of strangers, or perhaps even by an angel. Whatever it was, we (each of us) went through some kind of experience when we left home this morning.

Leaving home can bring complications, whether it’s the leaving home on a daily basis or the LEAVING HOME, when we move away from family and all that is familiar. A lot can happen when we walk out that door. Sometimes we almost become a different person. Perhaps we feel a new freedom—no longer someone’s sibling or child or parent…we move out, we go one, we “become,” we “improve,” we change… until we see run into someone who has known us from “before.” This is what happens in today’s Gospel.

Jesus returns home after having grow up, changed, and begun a public ministry of teaching and healing. In today’s Gospel we see the tension caused by Jesus’ willingness to leave home and then try to return again. Jesus grew up partly in Nazareth, but he traveled. He was baptized by John. He struggled with demons in the wilderness. He taught in synagogues and Luke tells us that Jesus “was glorified by all.” But then he came back to Nazareth, his home town. He read liberating words from Isaiah in the synagogue and then he added his own, saying that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That was last Sunday’s Gospel, and today’s reading picks up where last week’s left off.

Momentum was building around him. People spoke well of him. They wondered at his wisdom, but they were confused – after all, they knew him, or at least they thought they knew him. Was this not, after all, just Joseph’s son? Sensing their skepticism, Jesus reminds them of the longstanding tradition of a prophet being welcome in almost every place BUT his or her own country, or home town. Elijah, after all, was sent to Zarephath. And there he healed and prophesied. Elisha, too, healed the outsider, the foreigner. And so what should be been a home court advantage for Jesus quickly turns into an upset for his enemies. The game almost ends as people in the synagogue try to run Jesus out of town. Growing up is hard to do.

Growing up is hard for Jeremiah, as well, but for different reasons. In our first reading, we hear about Jeremiah, someone who also had significant growing pains—especially in relation to his calling from God. Jeremiah had an even more complicated leave taking—he tried to leave the familiar and the homely, and found he couldn’t get away. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;” God says to Jeremiah, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah tries to get out of this calling. “But I’m too young. I’m inexperienced. I’m not trained. I’m not fit for service.” But God calls him anyway. Later, when people seem to ignore him, when people laugh at him, when people go the opposite direction of this prophet, Jeremiah feels like he’s all alone. He moves away from almost everything that is familiar and comfortable. He ends up so far separated from those he loves or those from whom he might feel love, that he feels cut off from God. “O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me.” (Jer. 20) But slowly and somehow, Jeremiah later realizes that he has, indeed, grown up. God has simply been with him the whole time.

Spiritual growth comes so often when we are willing to leave what is familiar. We grow with God often by leaving home, though home can be many different things. We’re sometimes called to move to a new job, with new expectations and challenges. We’re sometimes called to move into new relationships where patterns and behaviors are different. We’re sometimes taken to new cities or perhaps even new countries and we find ourselves needing to make new friends, to develop new social networks and to re-define family away from home. The move away from home is not always physical.

I have a friend who has “moved” without doing much moving. She lives in North Arlington, New Jersey and rarely leaves her little town. But she reads, she writes friends, she prays, she learns. Consequently, she has a soul that is well-traveled, and like in today’s Gospel, she is often misunderstood and made fun of by her family and her local church. They don’t understand her need of challenge or growth, and they find it threatening. But I know my friend and I know that a part of her motivation is her belief in a God who almost plays hide and seek, who invites us to rise to a challenge and longs to show us new and complex depths to his love and mercy.

In this new year, I’ve been spending some time praying and meditating with W. H. Auden’s “For the Time Being” (A Christmas Oratorio). Auden, I think, understood this leaving the familiar and venturing out into unknown places—the whole adventure of faith. When he looks for the Christ who is born, the Christ we celebrate at Christmas, and then, moving into the new Year, the Christ we can almost lose sight of, Auden point to the Christ in movement and in becoming. He helps us locate God in change:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety.
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

We can be confident in the adventure of faith because we know that God is with us. God reminded Jeremiah that he was known in the womb, before he was born, God has consecrated him, and chosen him. God knows each of us at that depth as well. God knows our fears and our limitations, but God also knows our potential and God knows what we are made for.

As we learn to leave home and return in whatever ways we may be called, let us continue to grow in our faith. Let us grow in flexibility and in mercy. Let us grow in love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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