Making God in Our Own Image

An Annual Meeting Sermon

Our Gospel lesson picks up where last week’s left off right in the middle of what’s happening, so I wanted to read you the entire episode.

Photo Credit: lavishlylush via Compfight cc

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said 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 have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 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.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Jesus has just returned from his 40 days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness, ending with his temptation by Satan.  He is filled with the Spirit and comes back to Galilee, teaching in the synagogues.  And on this particular Saturday, he’s in his hometown.  He’s the one who reads from the scroll at their worship service, and he chooses this passage from Isaiah highlighting the marvelous activity that would take place with the arrival of the messiah—release of captives, proclamation of good news, recovery of sight.  “Today,” Jesus tells them, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your presence.”  He would be the one to usher in the year of the Lord’s favor when God’s love and grace would reign supreme. 

And they are amazed because they know this guy.  He’s Joseph’s son. They remember him when he used to run the bases at the ball field, and how he’d help his dad out at the wood shop.  Then they realize that they’re the hometown crowd, that they’ve got an in, a leg up on everyone else.  It’s as if they just hit the lottery, and they’re going to enjoy a new status in life because the one who will bring about the work of God is one of them. 

But Jesus knows what they’re thinking, and he addresses it head on.  “Surely you want the inside track,” he says.  “You’ll say, ‘Do for us what you did in Capernaum.’” “Of course!” they’re thinking.  “We want that and then some.  We’re you’re bros, Jesus.”  Before they can even utter the words, Jesus calls them on it.  “A prophet isn’t accepted at his own hometown,” he replies, giving two examples from the history of Israel when foreigners—non-Jews—benefited from God’s miraculous power, that widow in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian, while Jews weren’t helped.  And that’s when the hometown fans started booing their at all-star.  They became so enraged that they rushed with him out of the synagogue to the very edge of town and intended to toss Jesus into the ravine. He’s able to walk through the midst of this angry mob and continue on his way of love and grace and peace.  But he couldn’t do anything for them.

They’re scandalized by God’s love and grace because it’s not limited just to the hometown crowd.  It’s for those foreigners too—the Gentiles from Sidon and those Syrians.  And they become so enraged that they’re blind to God’s love and unable to receive it themselves.

A hundred and fifty-four years ago, Joseph Burnett deeded the parcel of land we’re on to St. Mark’s Church with a single stipulation: the church was to be free to all regardless of race, wealth, color or station.  Nearly all churches at that time had a fee structure with reserved pews for the wealthy and powerful.  Not so, said good ol’ Joe, God’s love is not to be limited.  The good news of grace must be proclaimed and made available to everyone.  God doesn’t play favorites.

But that’s hard to grasp at times.  We want God to play favorites from the frivolous—surely God’s a Red Sox fan—to the more serious—God’s the enemy of those Muslims.  Often in these cases we confuse our image of God with who God actually is, that image primarily being a projection of ourselves.  So God hates the people we hate; God wants to obliterate our enemies and the ones who don’t share our religious or political beliefs.  That god is really just an idol, a sham, a god made in our own image.  That god gets confused with national pride and a strong desire to be right and hold on to our perceived understanding of the truth.  And if we’re honest, we all do this.  We want to create a god who rallies around our hometown and does special things just for us.  And that “us” takes different forms.  Us Episcopalians or us MetroWesters.  Perhaps it’s us Republicans or us Democrats.  Or us white people or us Americans. 

The problem is, as one commentator put it, God’s love and grace are more radically inclusive than any group, denomination or church.  But even worse, that unlimited grace so scandalizes us that we are unable to receive it ourselves.  Let me say that again: We are so appalled by the unlimited love and grace of God that we end up missing out on it ourselves.

Let’s at least be honest, this isn’t easy to do.  It would be loads more fun to worship a god who wanted to smite my enemies.  But that’s not the God revealed in Scripture—some of you may immediately push back on that and remind me of the Exodus.  In fact the Talmud, a collection of Jewish commentary on the Torah, declares that God quieted the angels from singing on the day the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea.  “The creations of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you are singing a song?!” The Israelites’ enemy was a creation of God’s hand, and their loss was significant to God.

So where does that lead us on this Annual Meeting Sunday?  What can this word of the Lord say to us?

Obviously, God’s love isn’t limited just to us.  God’s grace moves far beyond the boundaries we place on it.  There’s a story about some soldiers in France during World War II that came to a local priest in order to bury two of their fallen brothers.  “Are they Catholic?” the priest asked the soldiers, and they replied no.  “You can bury them just outside the fence then, and I promise that their graves will be attended to.”  The men did as they were instructed, and some time later they came back to pay their respects, however they couldn’t find the graves even though they had noted where they were buried.  They found the same priest and asked him what had happened to their friends’ bodies, where had they been moved and why.  The priest recounted that on the night after they had buried their friends he couldn’t sleep at all, troubled by what he had said.  “The bodies are exactly where you buried them,” he said. “The next day I asked the caretaker to move the fence.  Your friends are now inside the walls.”

Three weeks ago we had the privilege of hearing about Islam from one of our neighbors, Dr. Safdar Medina.  It was the most well attended adult forum I’ve seen during my time at St. Mark’s.  What emerged from that is a desire to learn more about Islam through a visit to the Islamic Center in Wayland—we’re working on a date for that excursion in the coming weeks—and to explore creating a Southborough Interfaith Collaborative bringing together neighbors of all faiths in order to seek common ground and work toward our shared goals of peace.  That’s a great start.

Secondly, we must continue building on our strong foundation of spreading the good news of God’s grace in tangible ways.  Our outreach work with the homeless at St. Francis House, those imprisoned through Straight Ahead Ministries, the disenfranchised through Hoops and Homework, Project Just Because and Boston Warm, the gift of clean and safe drinking water through Living Water International and affordable housing with Habitat must continue on.  Jesus’ message of grace extends far beyond the masonry of our glorious building, and we must continue in that work together.  We can become known as the parish that gives generously because we believe God’s grace and love extends to every human being.  In fact, we’re gaining a reputation for this already through our open plate offering: another parish in our diocese took up the practice this year after hearing about our experiences, and a few months ago a few people exclaimed when meeting St. Mark’s parishioners, “Oh, you’re the church giving away your plate money!”  This simple gift continues to change lives.

Additionally I believe we are called to be agents of God’s love within our own community.  During our stewardship season, you all indicated what your passions were, what activities and things bring you joy and sustain your life.  This year we’d like to bring  you together with people of all ages sharing those same interests.  We’re beginning today.  During our annual meeting you’ll be encouraged to find a table designated with your passions.  Regardless of your age, we invite you to spread out.  Don’t just sit with your usual friends, or your spouse.  Move around.  Meet people of similar passions.

As you likely remember, in November we designated our open plate to families in our own community who could use assistance over the holidays.  It became one of the largest monthly donations last year, and the people we helped were overwhelmed at the generosity.  In this year ahead I want to explore ways to keep doing that.  I’ve had times in the past when a person didn’t have the means to fly home for the funeral of a beloved grandmother and I was able to buy that person a ticket with discretionary money.  Others may face unexpected car issues and needing a little help.  Some may face unemployment and could use assistance with a bill.  I can’t imagine this community not wanting to help others here who are in need.  I’ll be exploring ideas to make both sides of this—giving to the discretionary fund and seeking confidential assistance—easier and would welcome suggestions from you on ways to do that.

Finally, we must continue to grow humbly in the faith.  When we do not explore our faith or stay regular in our prayers and the reading of scripture, we begin to create a god of our own devising.  As I heard during the many coffees I had last year, you all are hungry to explore the Living God in more depth.  However, gathering in person is often hard to schedule due to the demands of life.  I’m going to explore two things: creating short booklets on spiritual practices that will be available to all and hosting online classes or book groups that would not be time or location dependent.  These things will be a trial to see if they can help us grow together and deepen our faith.  Stay tuned for more information on those.

In closing I believe we must ask ourselves this question posed by a commentator on our text: “How much more might God be able to do with us if we were ready to transcend the boundaries of community and limits of love that we have ourselves erected?” 

How much more could God do through us here at St. Mark’s if we fully lived into the dream of being a community of love?  Jesus love is for the entire world and not just a select group, and he asks us to share that love with the world we live in both far and near.  May we do so this next year and embody Christ’s love together.  Amen.