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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2016

Once I ordered a coat from a mail order house. It came in a big box that was hard to open. It was a winter coat and it was cold outside, so I wore it right away, only to find the coat was not warm enough and I would have to send it back. I tried to fold the coat back up the way it had come, but I was not successful and the coat just wouldn’t fit in the box. The sleeves fell out or the hood wouldn’t go in. I tried to hold the box together to no avail. There was no keeping that coat in the box. And of course, I didn’t have another box big enough to hold it. So I had to take it to the UPS store, buy one of their expensive boxes and ship it back to the company so I could get my refund.

Today’s story is about boxes. It is about trying to put God in a box so God will be the comfortable God we all think we know and will do what we expect God to do. But God is not like that. God has told new stories throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and God is telling new stories now with Jesus (David L. Ostendorf). Jesus is not what the synagogue crowd expected. At first he seems to fit right in with their aspirations, but it does not last. Jesus has his own story to tell and his hometown is the first place, but certainly not the last, that it attracts hostility.

Jesus has been baptized and come through the devil’s temptation in the power of the Holy Spirit. He begins to teach in synagogues and win acclaim from everyone. Now he returns to his hometown to officially identify himself and begin his ministry. He reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”. So far so good. Jesus is doing what is expected. He is a hometown boy with a reputation that precedes him and he is doing what all men do in the synagogue. But then Jesus pops out of the box. He tells the assembled crowd that “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” Wow, they think. Nobody who has read that text before has ever said that. Jesus is saying he is the fulfillment of the promises God has made to Israel so long ago.” Everyone is amazed at his words and wonders how he could be who he said he was. But they are happy he is one of theirs. He is Joseph’s son, which in this gospel has no hostility attached to it. God is doing a new thing, and it is good for Israel. Who wouldn’t want release of the captives and the oppressed to go free and the year of the Lord’s favor? They all identified with being captive and oppressed and they all had dreamed of the year of the Lord’s favor, when Israel would be delivered.

OK, this is great, they thought. Now when will Jesus perform the miracles he has done in other places that we have heard about. A reasonable question. They are the chosen people, God’s own children of Abraham, and they expect mighty acts from Jesus, on whom the Spirit rests. But Jesus pops out of the box again. He tells them prophets are not accepted in their own towns, though the people of Nazareth are accepting of Jesus at this point. Then he tells them two stories from their own Scriptures – the story of Elijah feeding a Gentile woman and her son during a famine and then healing the dead son through the power of God. Then he tells of Elisha, who healed Namaan the Syrian general from leprosy. Even though there were many widows in Israel during the famine and many people with leprosy, God chose foreigners to send the prophets to. The clear implication of this story is that anyone can be saved by God – a story out of the Scriptures, to be sure, but one that the Israelites, who revel in their chosen-ness and refused to interact with those different than they, have let slip their minds. He is telling God’s new-old story of the expansiveness of God’s love for all and reflecting God’s covenant with Abraham that Israel would be a blessing to all nations.

The crowd is incensed. Jesus has provoked them and has said in so many words that he is not going to do any miracles among them. He is not going to accord them the status they deserve. He is going to bring the good news to the poor and marginalized – even those outside Israel – something the crowd must not have heard very well during his reading. They rush at Jesus and force him up a hill, where they expect to throw him off. But here comes Jesus out of the box again. It doesn’t happen. Somehow, he slips through the unruly mob and goes on his way to Capernaum to continue his ministry.

Imagine what the people of Nazareth think after this experience. First they are amazed, then they are questioning and then they are downright hostile. No matter what they do, they cannot keep Jesus in the box that they want him to be in. He eludes them every time.

Why didn’t God allow Jesus to perform miracles in Nazareth? I don’t know. Perhaps it was because they were stuck in a box – the box labeled “us” – and did not care to be associated with “them”. Luke’s Jesus is saying that God will save all the people, us as well as the stranger outside our door. God’s loving reach extends more broadly than we can imagine. We only have to look beyond ourselves, to think outside our boxes and categories, to see “the other” in our midst and know God care for them too.

My friend told me a story the other day about a New Year’s Eve party in her neighborhood. She and her husband went to the party and there were mounds of food to feed the four of them. She found out later that everyone in the neighborhood had been invited, but not one other person came. The couple was Hispanic and she says everyone in the neighborhood ignores them. He even hired a plow to come in and take care of their street when the city didn’t do it. Nobody tipped the plow driver but my friends. Just when we think the “us” and “them” mentality may have dissipated some, it rears its ugly head again.

As Jesus defied the boxes that wanted to contain him, we have to think outside the box to help him bring in the kingdom. We have to consider the swarming masses of refugees, who are so different than we are, but are in great need of good news and liberation. What about the immigrants and the problems with that issue. Do we want to declare amnesty for illegal immigrants and let them stay in this country or do we want to deport them back to a place where they may be persecuted and surely will live a life of trial and tribulation. What about racial reconciliation? So many years after the civil rights movement and yet this is a live issue in people’s homes and institutions, especially considering the racist video that went viral this past week. And then there are the poor, the homeless, the disabled and the needy in our own backyards.

St. John’s serves the needy through AFAC, our help to neighborhood schools, the bagged lunches for the Bailey’s Crossroads homeless shelter. We are meeting needs in our community. But I urge us to keep thinking outside the box. Where else can we meet a need? Where else can we serve a population we may not have thought of, either in the community or right here at St. John’s? Who else needs to be brought to faith? Who else needs the St. John’s community? What else can we do to help Jesus bring good news and liberation to everyone?

St. John’s is part of the continuing new stories that God tells about God’s love for the world. And God’s love for the world is not about boxes, but about expansiveness. Let’s all climb out of the boxes we’re in and open our arms to the world.

AMEN

     --- Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
David L. Ostendorf, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 310