Saturday, January 30, 2010

Another Beginner's Sermon...

Seam Allowances.

We continue our reading with the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, verses 22 through 30. This continues directly from our reading from last week, where Jesus is in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, and has claimed that he is the one Isaiah is speaking about: That he is the one to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.

Let us pray:

Our God, speak to us through this text, that we may hear your good news. Invite us into your complexities, that we may find a way to live in your light. Show us your way, so that we can wade through the muddiness of our lives and see your truth. Amen.

I’m still working on my son’s quilt. I started it more than a year ago, as soon as I found out that he was coming. Now quilt-making isn’t so tricky, as long as you follow a few simple rules, and these rules all have to do with your seams. See when you’re quilting, you’re piecing many disparate parts of cloth together, sometimes sewing together two types of cloth that are of different consistencies, different thread counts, or different thicknesses. So when you sew these pieces together, you need to be consistent, and allow what the quilting books call a “scant one quarter inch seam.” You put the two pieces together, the back side out, and as you sew, you sew a quarter of an inch below the edge of the fabric. Now if you’re too stingy with the seam allowance, you could get holes in your quilt. If you’re too gracious with the seam allowance, your pieces won’t meet up, and you’ll get a quilt that is far from the square or rectangle that you were hoping for in the first place. When you first start cutting up your fabric into various shapes, then, you need to remember to add a quarter of an inch to each side, to account for the seams that you need to be able to combine your pieces. If you forget, you’ll have to start all over.

But when we look at a quilt, we hardly think about the seams; we think about how all the different shapes and colors combine to form a whole. But if you don’t think about seams when you’re first beginning your quilting project, you’ll find yourself in a mess of wasted fabric.

In our reading today, Luke shows us his seams. If you read the passage carefully, you’ll notice that there are a few strange things going on here, things that don’t appear to go together very well. You’ll remember from last week that Jesus has just come into the synagogue of his hometown and read from the Scroll of Isaiah. After he reads, he essentially says, “This passage is about me: I’ve come to give good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And everybody’s floored. They “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

But then they question his authority. They say, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” As if to say, “We know this kid – who does this guy think he is? He’s just Joseph’s son, the son of a carpenter.”

And then, Jesus gets his back up, and either goes on the offensive, attacking them, or begins defending himself against some accusation that hasn’t even been mentioned yet. He starts ranting about how even Elijah and Elisha couldn’t do miracles in their hometowns, how they, too, were rejected.

As readers, we’re left to think, “What in the world has just happened?” How did amazement at who Jesus is turn to some kind of angry diatribe on the part of Jesus? And again, why would a group of people who were amazed at Jesus suddenly turn around and decide that he deserves to be thrown off a cliff?

Many scholars have suggested that this is what is called a “literary seam” in the text.

Here the author of the Gospel of Luke has combined his sources, Mark and a second source scholars call Q, without trying to smooth things over, without trying to make any alterations. Luke stitches together two disparate passages, and there is an obvious discrepancy between the two. But instead of solving the problem, Luke lets the rough connections and inconsistencies stand as they are.

So instead of figuring out some way to resolve the problem of the dramatic change in response to Jesus on the part of the Nazarenes, Luke leaves it alone, and lets us wrestle with the fact that Jesus is, at the same time, loved and hated, by the same people.

So today, I’d like us to pay attention to these seams. In this passage, the seams are places where two things that don’t seem to go together are placed together anyway. Jesus is loved, and then hated. Jesus is praised, but then feels the need to get a little bit belligerent, to explain to them why he hasn’t done any miracles in their midst. The people of Jesus’ hometown are awed at his proclamations, and then, just a few minutes later, they’re ready to throw him off a cliff.

Let’s hear what the Spirit is saying to us, inside of these seams.

I think the key to understanding these seams is what Jesus does.

The Nazarenes, apparently forgetting that they adored him just a few minutes ago, get up, drive him out of town and prepare to throw him off a cliff. And what does Jesus do? He slips out. He passes through the midst of them and goes on his way.

Jesus slips by both sentiments. He slips by the love and the hate. He escapes from those who want to praise him and those who want to curse him. He goes away unnoticed because they’ve both got him wrong. Jesus is neither “just the carpenter’s son”, nor is he the military leader they’ve all been waiting for. And he goes away unnoticed because, in some ways, they’ve both got him right: He has come to bring about the Kingdom, and he is going to confound and frustrate.

Jesus once again breaks down the dialectic; Jesus turns everything on its head. Jesus doesn’t live in the either/or – the “this or that” – the false opposites that we put up for ourselves so that we can make sense of our world.

We put up these false opposites all the time: we create stark divisions between acceptance/rejection, black/white, rich/poor, smart/dumb, male/female, elation/depression, subject/object; the list goes on and on. Even Jeremiah, in our Hebrew Testament reading, says, “I’m just a kid; I can’t be a leader” – revealing the dialectic between youth and experience.

But Jesus gives them all the slip. Jesus breaks down these dialectics by living in the seams. Jesus sews two opposing things together and shows us how to find the grace to glide by – or through - them both.

Isn’t this the beauty of the incarnation? As soon as we emphasize Jesus’ divinity, we’ve forgotten his humanity. And as soon as we emphasize Jesus’ humanity, we’ve de-emphasized his divinity.

As soon as we think we’ve got Jesus figured out – he slips out through the crowd.

Now personally, I struggle with the divine aspect of Jesus. And I go to school with others who seem to forget about the human element of Jesus. But, the beauty of this is that as soon as I think I’ve got Jesus figured out, as soon as I think, “Jesus must have been solely human because he prayed to God, because he showed need, because he weeps, bleeds, and gets angry,” I am confronted by a Jesus who preexists the rest of creation, who refers to himself as “I Am” and who has the power to calm the waves and wind. My idea of Jesus is the bubble that, just as I reach out to hold it in my hands, as soon as I think I can control who he is and what he wants from me, the idea pops, and Jesus slips away, escapes my grasp.

It’s not easy to live in the seams. It’s not easy to be vulnerable enough to reveal our own seams – whether it be the uncertainties about who we think Jesus is, or to break down the walls between the dialectics by which we live.

But this is where we live. We just need to recognize it.

How often do we laugh after a funeral, telling funny stories, remembering the joy that that person gave us or the ridiculous things that person did?

Or, how often do we feel guilty that we can’t be in two places at once? For myself, I feel the tension of being a working mom, wishing I could do both things: be the best mother possible without sacrificing my work and vice versa. When I’m home, I feel like I’m not doing what’s best for my job. And when I’m at work, I feel like I’m not doing what is best for my son.

But this tension - this place of “both” – is where we are called to live.

How often do we try to balance our own view of ourselves, trying to find a healthy humility: one that is not completely disparaging, nor too elevating?

It’s a tightrope walk from which we are always falling.

And yet, this is where Jesus lives. He parties, going to weddings and making wine. He gives sight to the blind with mud and spit. He dines with sinners. He heals the poor hemorrhaging woman on the way to raising a rich man’s daughter from the dead. He feasts on the Sabbath and fasts in the desert. He dies among two thieves, while, at the same time, proclaiming the reign of God, and saying that he’s going to paradise.

Aren’t we so glad that we have a net of grace which catches us when we overemphasize one side of the dialectic over the other – when we put Jesus beyond our reach, we are reminded of Jesus’ humanity, of our commonality. And when we try to domesticate Jesus, we are reminded that Jesus cannot be tamed. We are called to remember that, as Dr. Dale Allison says, “a domesticated Jesus who sounds like us, makes us comfortable, and commends our opinions is no Jesus at all.”

Let us allow for seams. Let us strive to live in the seams – in the “both/and” – in the place where things don’t always make sense, but where grace abounds.

Jesus invites us to live in the synthesis of tensions, to live, not in the “black or white” but in the grey.

As we wrestle with who Jesus is, Jesus invites us to wrestle with who we are. Jesus encourages us to slip out of the prescribed roles set out for us so that we can be who we truly are.

May we live in the seams. Thanks be to God.

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