The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, 2016 – Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
There is an episode on the popular 90s sitcom FRIENDS, called, “The One with the Cat”.In this episode Phoebe, one of the characters, finds a stray cat and somehow imagines that this cat is the reincarnation of her dead mother. Ross, another character and friend of Phoebe, becomes quite frustrated, because this just cannot be the case. How can a cat be a reincarnation of someone’s mother? And to make matters worse, Rachel, another friend of Phoebe, finds a flyer that this cat actually belongs to a young child.
So, Ross gives Rachel and the other friends a responsibility. They absolutely need to tell Phoebe the truth, and get this cat back to its rightful owner.
The only problem is… when the other friends see how happy Phoebe is with this cat they can’t bear to break the truth to her. They love her, and they value her happiness.
Now Ross is furious. First of all he doesn’t believe that this cat is the reincarnation of Phoebe’s mother. Second of all, the truth is that this cat belongs to another young child.
In frustration, he breaks the truth to Phoebe. And conflict ensues. Now this episode of FRIENDS has a life experience that we are all familiar with. Some of us identify with Ross.
The truth needs to be spoken at all times. Some of us identify with Rachel. Sometimes, someone’s happiness is more important than the truth.
And we constantly find ourselves swinging between these two options.
Do we speak the truth, and risk ruining a relationship?
Or instead, do we love someone, and be silent about truth?
Our Gospel passage has a very similar story and in it, we see Jesus doing something quite different.
Jesus doesn’t choose love over truth. Neither does He choose truth over love. Rather, Jesus chooses to speak the truth, in love.
Our Gospel passage is an event in Jesus’ life that literally took under 15 minutes. We read the first half last Sunday.
Jesus returns to his hometown and visits the synagogue on the Sabbath. His neighbours and friends who remember him as a young lad are so very happy that he has returned. So, they ask him to read from Scripture,and this is where our passage from Luke’s Gospel ended last Sunday.
This Sunday, we pick up where we ended last week. After reading Scripture, Jesus gives them a short sermon. And it is an incredibly offensive sermon.
Look at verse 23. Jesus says to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we heard you did at Capernaum.’” It’s like someone telling Celine Dion when she returns to her hometown of Charlemagne, Quebec, “Celine, you have done these fantastic concerts all over the world. Why not do a concert for us here…? You’re one of us, after all…!” But imagine if Celine was to respond rather abruptly and says, “no artist is accepted in her own hometown.”
Which is exactly what Jesus says. “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
And Jesus continues in verse 25 “But in truth,” he says “there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.
There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
So, why does Jesus respond this way?
Well, to answer this question, we need a little background. Elijah and his successor Elisha were prophets to the kingdom of Israel around 9th C BC, that is 2800 years ago. Now the kingdom of Israel was chosen by God for a purpose. God chose them to be a blessing to the kingdoms around them, including their enemies. However, Israel twisted this “chosen-ness” into a self-centered, selfish, consumerism. Instead of chosen-ness being about blessing the “other”, chosen-ness became about greatness and blessing just for themselves.
Not to mention that around this time, Israel also practiced gross idolatry and injustice sometimes sacrificing their babies to idols.
So, God sent them Elijah and Elisha. But because Israel kept rejecting the prophets over and over again,God sent his prophets to bless Israel’s enemies instead.
A widow of Zarephath. And a general of Syria named Naaman who was a leper.Now there are a lot of parallels between Elijah, Elisha… And Jesus.
During Jesus’ time, Israel was colonized by another enemy, the Romans. And when Jesus did all these wonderful things in Capernaum, the Israelites wondered,
“Jesus, if you’re one of us, why don’t you do something for us? Why are you blessing others?”
So, why does Jesus respond to them the way he does in verse 25…?? Because Jesus’ is saying to them,“You want me to bless you and reject others but I have come to bless you and the other.
I am here to bless you, and your enemies but you will not allow it. You only want me to bless you therefore, I am not welcome here. Which is why Jesus had to speak the truth in love to them.
He had to challenge their misconceptions about his identity and his mission.
He had to challenge their misconceptions about their own lives and purposes.
Now for those of us who like proclaiming truth, myself included, this seems like it validates our own impatience.
Of course, if we see injustice, we feel the need to speak up. Of course, if we see wrongdoing, we feel the need to say something.
We imagine that if we are silent, the truth is at stake. Maybe it’s telling our sons and daughters how to raise their kids.
Maybe it’s telling our parents how much they have wronged us.
Maybe it’s telling a co-worker that we disagree with their lifestyle.
And we are worried that to not say something is a validation of wrongdoing. So we somehow imagine that the opposite of speaking the truth, is silence.
And we are so very uncomfortable with that.
But actually, the opposite of speaking the truth is not silence.
The opposite of speaking the truth, is speaking the truth in love. This is the point of our reading from First Corinthians. First Corinthians tells us that truth without love is harsh.
Without love, we are just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. We give people a severe headache.
Without love, Our truth does not achieve the redemptive purposes of God, and in fact it might push people further away from God’s purposes for their lives.
Indeed, love does not compel us to be silent, but neither does love compel us to be blunt and harsh. Rather, in the words of First Corinthians,
Love is patient. Love is kind.
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way;
Love is not irritable or resentful;
Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
Love rejoices in the truth.
Now this does not mean that if learn to speak the truth in love, everything we say will be automatically well received.
In fact, when Jesus spoke the truth in love, he was rejected.
Look with me at verse 28 to 29 of our Gospel passage. How did the crowd respond when Jesus spoke the truth to them in love?
“They were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
They hated what he said so much, that they wanted to kill him for it.
For those of us who prefer to be silent, this kind of rejection is too familiar. We don’t want to speak the truth because speaking the truth can get us hurt.
But silence! Silence feels like a safer and more loving option. And we believe that love is accepting and affirming any and every pursuit of happiness because we’ve been told that that’s what love is. Who wants to tell their spouse that their pride is isolating them from family? Who wants to tell their co-worker that their affair is destructive? Who wants to tell their child that their sexual choices are harmful? Who wants to tell their parent that their workaholism is affecting them?
Perhaps in these moments, we feel like the prophet Jeremiah from our first reading today. We feel afraid, alone, perhaps too inexperienced to speak the truth. We know we must say something, but the circumstances and the fears are too overwhelming.
But, silence is not a synonym for love. Neither is affirming any and every pursuit of happiness a synonym for love.
Rather, as First Corinthians reminds, love compels us to rejoice in the truth.
And although we might feel like Jeremiah, we are rather invited to find strength in God and be like Jesus, the one who spoke truth in love. The one who spoke truth in love.
But if you are reading today’s Gospel passage closely, it doesn’t seem like Jesus is telling them the truth in love. It seems like he is just being harsh and blunt.
Where is the love? Where’s the patience? The kindness?
And if you remember reading through the previous chapters in passages in Luke, there has been no mention of Jesus visiting Capernaum.
Jesus only goes to Capernaum after this incredibly offensive sermon.
So, we are left wondering, Has Luke made a mistake? But wasn’t Luke a very detailed biographer?
So, either Luke made a clumsy mistake, which could have been easily fixed after some proofreading….
Or… Luke is trying to sneakily draw our attention to something.
So, the question is…
What is Luke trying to draw our attention to?
What is Luke drawing our attention to?
Now, when you follow the thread of Capernaum in Luke’s Gospel, you notice a few things. Capernaum is the outsider. The place that nobody likes. Yet, Capernaum becomes the place where Jesus does some of his greatest miracles and acts of love. Exorcisms of various demons…healings of all kinds of sicknesses and diseases, even Jesus helping a Roman centurion, an enemy of Israel.
All these things happen in Capernaum. Yet, the last time Capernaum is mentioned in Luke’s Gospel we find out that they too rejected Jesus. The outsider that Jesus loved and served, rejects him.
So we realize that Capernaum becomes a symbol. It becomes a symbol of Jesus speaking the truth in love and a symbol of him being rejected for speaking the truth in love.
Capernaum points us to a bigger picture of who Jesus is.
And when you dig deeper in Luke’s Gospel, you realize that Jesus does not only speak truth in love. He is truth and love personified. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus forgives peoples’ sins.
Jesus gives people meaning and new life even when he is hanging on the cross. Jesus prays for the forgiveness of his crucifiers, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Who would do that? Would you? Would I? Capernaum reveals that Jesus is truth and love personified.
And so, when we think about whether to choose either truth, or love, or to speak the truth in love, Jesus points us to something completely different.
Jesus ultimately points us to himself, the person who is truth and love. We aren’t called to merely speak truthful statements lovingly. Rather, any statement we have to say, ultimately points people to Jesus, the one who is truth and love.
Because knowing Jesus is knowing truth. Knowing Jesus is knowing love. And speaking the truth in love is pointing others to Jesus the Son of God, who is truth and love.
But what does this mean? What does this look like?
Louis Zamperini was an American World War II air force pilot stationed in the Pacific. In 1943, Zamperini and his crew crashed in the Pacific while they were doing a search and rescue operation.
After many days they were eventually captured by the Japanese Navy. Zamperini, unfortunately, became a victim of war crimes. Brutal torture, beatings, starvation, hard labour in a coal mine…
Eventually when the war ended, Zamperini returned to the US. However, he experienced what we know today as Post-Traumatic Stress-Disorder, or PTSD. He had nightmares where he dreamt that he was strangling his captors. One night he was woken up by his wife, Cynthia because he was accidentally strangling her. So he figured that the only way to overcome these tortuous memories, was to drink. So every night, Louis Zamperini would get incredibly drunk,hoping to numb his deep, deep pain. He became a tortured, wounded, resentful, and angry soul. Cynthia wanted a divorce, and Louis felt she had every right to it. Now one day, Cynthia was invited to a Christian meeting where she had a religious experience. She came home and decided to not divorce her husband. Somehow, she felt like her marriage was not beyond hope. However, Cynthia kept insisting that Louis had to go to this meeting too. Eventually, Louis Zamperini reluctantly agreed that he would do it.
At the meeting, Louis too had some kind of religious experience. He was deeply affected by the thought that Jesus loved him and forgave him. In fact, after he experienced it, he decided that he did not want to be consumed by his alcoholism anymore. And he realized that the only way to be freed from his oppressive nightmares, was to forgive his Japanese tormentors. Which he did. And in his own words in a 2015 interview, he said
“The night I made my decision for Christ, I haven’t had a nightmare– 1949 til now!”
He continues “That is some kind of a miracle.” In fact, in 1950, Louie Zamperini travelled back to Japan, to meet his prison guards and tormentors …not to tell them how much he resented them,not to boast about how they couldn’t destroy him, not to pretend that nothing happened, but to tell them that he had forgiven them. To tell them that he had forgiven them.
Louis Zamperini had met truth and love in Christ at that Christian meeting and the only thing he had to tell to his tormentors was both truth and love,that he forgave them.
He was free from having to choose between truth or love. He just told them that he had forgiven them and somehow that statement admitted both that he was hurt, and that somehow they were still loved. And for you and I to become people who are not constantly swinging from one extreme to another, who can become transformed to speak the truth in love, we too need Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We need Jesus so that we know what truth really is. We need Jesus to show us what real love is. We need Jesus to tell us the truth of how much God really loves us. We need Jesus to show us what real love is, in his sacrifice on the cross for our sins.
If Jesus is truth and Jesus has overcome death in the resurrection, then we never have to fear that the truth is at stake. Rather, we can point people to Jesus, who will bring about the truth in their lives. It might have a different schedule, but it will be a better schedule. If Jesus is love, then we do not have to anxiously protect and affirm any and every pursuit of happiness.
Jesus is love. All of our happiness, fulfilment, meaning, purpose, yes, even eternal life, is ultimately found in him. Therefore, pointing people to Jesus is the most loving thing to do.
Knowing Jesus is knowing truth. Knowing Jesus is knowing love. And we need Jesus to be truth and love for us, so that we can be witnesses of Jesus’ truth and love to those around us.
I speak to you in the name of Jesus Christ, who is our truth and love. Amen.