A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

By: David H. May, Rector


I think if I were to give a title for this sermon it would be:  “Yes, God loves everybody and all, I get that, but would you please get out of my pew!”

Sort of an odd title for a sermon.  But I do think that’s what I’d call it, though maybe a little explanation is in order.  Certainly there is for this scene we just heard about in the gospel reading.  I mean, did you catch what happened?!  In case you didn’t or find yourself thinking what in the world was that all about?, let me back up just a little and give us a running start.

As the action begins on this scene, Jesus has just returned to his hometown after being away for some time.  He’d left town not too long ago to join the crowds of folks who were flocking to see John the Baptist who was preaching up a storm out in the wild country near the Jordan River.  We know, now, that something special happened when John baptized Jesus.  And we know that while Jesus was still wet, the Spirit basically picked him up and tossed him out into the wilderness.  He was there for forty days and we know that during that time he wrestled with the devil.  We know all that, but the folks in his hometown most probably didn’t.  All they knew was that he’d left town and then next they hear of him is that he’s stirred up a lot of excitement and something more than excitement with the things he’s saying in other synagogues in other towns.  There’s word that he even did more than that in the synagogue in Capernaum which probably raised a few eyebrows.  Capernaum was a town known to have lots of, well, unusual, different kinds of people there.  Truthfully, they weren’t really the kind you’d want your daughter to go to the movies with or for your son to bring home to dinner.  Maybe they were fine people, but they weren’t really like the good people of Nazareth, not like us.

And maybe it was a little odd that Jesus said and did these astonishing things elsewhere first.  You’d think his hometown and the people who raised him and made him who he was might’ve rated a little better treatment than that.  But never mind, he’s home now.

And at first, what Jesus has to say matches all the hoopla and excitement that they’ve been hearing about.  He reads the words of the prophet Isaiah that says that God will raise up a prophet again and something more than a prophet.  He will be God’s own Messiah who will someday release Israel from captivity like a song bird flying out of its cage, and lift up the lowly like heroes carried around on people’s shoulders, and that the oppressors of their children and their children’s children will get such a whipping that they’ll hightail it and never come back.  And Jesus says, that day, that someday that we’re all dreaming about, is today.

And everyone beams at his words.  They see with their own eyes that what everyone is talking about about Jesus is true.  And he’s one of their own, Joseph’s son, a hometown boy, one of us.

And all would well and fine if that’s where it had ended.  Everyone could’ve streamed outside for the reception and eaten devilled eggs and fried chicken and sipped sweet tea and shoo-ed the flies away from the jello salad and all would’ve been just fine.  And if it had been me in the pulpit or 99.99% of all other preachers, that’s probably what would’ve happened.

But Jesus didn’t stop there.  His time in the wilderness with the devil whispering in his ear had showed him how easy a thing it is to settle for something less than the living God.  And so, he had more to say.  He reminds them of two stories from their holy scriptures; two stories about God and what God is like and how large God’s mercy casts its net; two stories about how God remembers and blesses people who weren’t one of us.  During a long time of famine when people here at home were starving to death, only a poor widow in Zarephath near the faraway, foreign seaport of Sidon was filled up by God with all she could eat.  And Jesus remembers another time when too many here at home were living and dying from leprosy, and the only one God’s hand reached out to heal was a Syrian warlord named Naaman.

And that’s when all hell – literally – broke loose and the people who knew Jesus when he was little and a teenager and a young man, the people who knew him best, just lost it, just totally lost it.  And in a rage, they drove him to the edge of town to a cliff where they meant to toss him off so his body would be broken on the rocks below.

It’s hard to understand what happened.  And it’s scary to thinking something that murderous lies just beneath the surface.  How did regular old people just snap like that?  It’s hard even to imagine.

Years ago I saw something in church that maybe is a clue.  It was about fifteen minutes before church was to begin and I looked in from the back of the church to make sure the candles had been lit.  And there in the middle of the aisle I saw a coat lying there in a heap.  I walked in to pick it up.  When I reached for it, I heard “you should leave it right there, where I put it!”  Just beside me seated in a pew was a most wonderful, beautiful older saint of God who was a parishioner there.  But she was clearly upset.  Beyond upset, really.  She was trembling with rage.  She said, “this is my pew.  I don’t know who put their coat down to save this spot, but this is my pew.  I’ve sat right here all my days with my mother and my grandmother as far back as I can remember.  This is my pew.”

Now hang on for a minute before you get too angry with her.  Think about what that place, that spot meant to her; like, once long ago sitting there in her new Easter dress as a little girl with her mother and her mother’s mother and all three in new hats for Easter morning.  Or, in sad times, like when her father was dying, and kneeling there between those two women who taught her about sadness and keeping faith.  Or stepping forward with them to walk to the altar for her first communion and coming back after with them to kneel and pray in their pew.  And now that they are gone, she is still there in that place, her pew, trying to keep faith.

You can see, can’t you, how she felt entitled to that pew, her own special, reserved place with God that couldn’t be taken away.  I can.  And I can also see how the people in Nazareth that day felt so hurt that Jesus would say that they weren’t the only ones entitled to a special place in God’s heart, a place they thought belonged to them and to them alone.

Jesus is just at the very beginning of his public ministry and he begins by saying to his people ‘you’re God is too small; your God looks too much like the one the devil tried to counsel me to become, a little god who will make you littler and littler yourself til there’s nothing left of you.  God is your God and the God of heaven and earth and all that is in it and all who are in it and will show mercy to those whom God will show mercy.’

It’s far too long a story to tell in detail, but the story of that woman who tossed the coat of a newcomer out of her pew and into the aisle didn’t end there.  Not too many months after, mercy was given, and she had scooted over to make a place for a young woman who was as far away and foreign to her as the widow from Zarephath or Naaman the Syrian warlord are to you.  Through the mercy of God, she might’ve lost ‘her pew’ but she was given something like the day the prophet Isaiah said would come with God’s Messiah, and she flew like a bird out of a cage.

Years later she said:  “It was my pew.  But I see it was mine so I could save a place for that sweet girl who’s there with me now, so I can be her mother and her grandmother too.

Maybe that’s why we all have our pew – to save a place for the one God knows is in need of mercy and to set us free too.  Amen.