Blurring the Lines: May I Be a Holy Fool–Luke 4: 14-30

This sermon was preached at Waverly Presbyterian Church on July 5, 2015

Luke 4: 14-22a

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 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, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 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?” This is the word of the Lord.        
        When I was a little girl I built a kingdom in my head; a place full of brilliant sun-soaked days and nights sprinkled with stars, midnight magic, and sparkling glass slippers. I loved this little kingdom, and I frequently spent my playtime there, telling its story over and over again each time a little different than the last. In this kingdom, no matter the pain of being indentured and enduring cruelty, before I left everyone was always happy and whole. The servant was able to overcome cruelty and ended up a princess in the castle. The evil witch was defeated and the world was turned right-side up. In my imagination I bought in – hook, line, and sinker – to a Disney-fied version of the world because it felt good, and because our imaginations let us believe that these things are simple and that happy endings are always possible.
        I share this not because I believe that the Kingdom of God looks anything like this, or that this is some pattern for redemption, but because even in the innocence of childhood play we desire stories that promise hope and we imagine times where the world is just “right”. I think it is human to desire to see things in black and white, have them organized and assimilated so that our choices are simple. We even like puzzles, just as long as at the end of the day it makes sense and all the pieces fit.
         I often think that very aspect of human nature is what happened to the Jews prior to Jesus coming–their strict adherence to purity laws, their desire to draw lines in the sand. They reveled in ensuring that they were keeping the unclean out, their food separated, and even marked each other with the sign of circumcision to know who was who. The truth is that across human history we’ve always hated nuances, confusion, and anything that isn’t clear. We consistently try to draw those lines over and over again. Either you are a bible believing Christian or you aren’t. You’re a liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, leader or follower, Elvis person or Beatles person, gay or straight, right or wrong, black or white, good or evil. Now I’m not saying there aren’t people and situations that blur the lines, because there are. Constantly. In fact, the lines and boxes we draw around each other and ourselves are constantly being pushed back against. But we like to be able categorize things because labels and lines are easy. And when those are challenged, instead of opening them up often we stand even firmer, dig our heels in, or even get out our shovels and dig a moat and set up a little bunch of knights to stand guard at the entrance. All in the name of protecting the distinction, the lines, and following the rules we’ve set up for ourselves.
In the passage today, Jesus is teaching in the synagogues. He’s reading from the first two verses of Isaiah 61. What is important here is that the spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus, anointing Him with a specific purpose. This purpose is not just one fulfilled in his Messiah title of royalty, but one that is prophetic in nature. It is about light in a dark world, hope for the poor, freedom to those bound both physically and by sin, and healing for the afflicted. Jesus is proclaiming his role here, and that his presence is ushering in a kingdom of endless possibility for joy and goodness. The darkness that pervades for those who suffer is coming to an end, a Kingdom is coming through Christ’s work in the world and He has been sent to bring it in. Or at least, that’s the message that we want to believe of this passage. We WANT to believe that Jesus is the hero, rescuing the princess, slaying the dragon, fixing everything wrong. By golly we are going to get our happy ending and the kingdom will come on earth.
         I think we often come too quickly to our conclusions about Christ’s work in the world. We make Jesus the hero of His own fairytale, the answer to all the problems. With passages like this we draw the line in the sand. World before Jesus. World saved by Jesus. Jesus is coming and he’s going to fix it.
         It’s not that it’s just easy to do this. It’s completely comforting, relieving even to think that everything has a place in our history. I’ve spent the majority of my time in recent years leaping between two communities, one the school of social work, the other seminary. I was quick to separate their purposes. Despite the fact that I am doing a dual degree designed specifically to incorporate the overlap, all I could find were the differences and draw those lines. Seminary was by and large conservative. It focused on the theoretical and not the practical of ministry. It gave me tools to read and interpret the bible, according to whatever professor’s doctrine who was teaching the class, but didn’t address things how to sit at the side of a widow at a funeral, or deal with the complexities of people with special needs as members of the body of Christ, or perhaps its worst offense–disagree with someone amicably. All we read was a lot of really old dead white dudes. Occasionally when people asked and I thought they might be understanding or open to it, I described myself as having seminary PTSD–those lingering classroom shouting matches and folded arms and incredulous looks between people echoing in the back of my brain. Beyond the inappropriateness of trivializing a very real medical condition, I wanted to categorize that experience as one thing. One movement that it boiled down to. On the other hand I saw social work as practical tools and skills that made sense to me. The people who did this thing leaned toward agreeing with me socially and politically, and didn’t see the world as a morally decaying cesspool but a place worthy of our help. Social work was interested in making the world better on a larger scale, not just hosting an occasional bake sale or a volunteer night with homeless people. To me, it saw the deep issues I thought we needed to face in order to change the world. It wanted to make people the part of a larger global community, and seminary felt like a place designed to keep people out.
         Of course, that isn’t the whole story. It’s never the whole story. There were many moments in seminary where I felt that cerebral jerk of connecting the dots followed by the quickening of my heart and the internal chorus of yesses screaming out. I definitely nearly got my eyeballs stuck in the back of my head in at least one social work class, and struggled through an internship that sounded exciting and change-driven on the outside but many days was lonely and sluggish, and on the worst days empty and disappointing. I was quick, however, to push aside the nuances, to box up these experiences and put them on the shelves.
         I don’t think it’s uncommon that I’ve always wanted to see the world tell the stories familiar to me. There is evil, and it is marked out for us and easy to spot. It may have power for a time, but in the end good wins out. It’s why we love things, often secretely, like romantic comedies. We know the ending from the first five minutes of the film. But we still watch the whole thing. Every fairytale I knew had a happy ending.
I admit, as a young child I didn’t always perceive my world as very dark. I understood darkness and evil, poverty and violence as something you could peak at between the thick green leaves of the maple tree during high summer in my front yard. Even as I got older and realized that evil was not outside of the bubble of my backyard, but occasionally a part of the people closest to me and even bearing down in my own soul I still thought I could pick it out, that it was distinctive from the rest of the way things were.  
Every day of elementary and middle school, a nice yellow public school bus picked me up, drove about five minutes, and plopped myself and several other students off at the front of the school I attended in Homewood, just barely across Penn Avenue. Because of its original intention as part of a special program adopted by the Pittsburgh Public Schools for desegregation, I was in class with kids from all over the city, including some from the local neighborhood. Although I rode a yellow school bus five minutes from my home to school, by second grade I noticed something very strange. My friends from the surrounding neighborhood did not ride a yellow school bus even though their homes were often the same distance, sometimes even farther and they crossed equally concerning intersections. I was confused by this and really probably too shy to bring it up. I don’t know how I learned about its connection to race. It may have been one of my parents or another adult, or maybe even a child in my class. But it was unmistakable who the vast majority was who sat at the walker’s benches in the school cafeteria. The black kids walked home.
 It obviously wasn’t right. I remember a few conversations about it: How my skin color made a difference about what route was determined too dangerous for me to walk.
         Like the carefully constructed the imaginary world I went to in telling my stories, I assumed good would win out. This was a very clear issue of unfairness. I remember writing a letter, not sure that it was ever sent anywhere. But I especially remember when it made the most sense for there to be school busses for all the kids. In fifth grade I was sitting through D.A.R.E. class, a once a week don’t succumb to peer pressure “informational seminar”, with a police officer who that afternoon suddenly and unexpectedly left. That afternoon stuck out to me because it was the day Ebony Patterson, a student from the nearby high school, was walking home and died after being caught in the crossfire of bullets. Why didn’t she have a bus? A shelter of safety? Obviously this was the answer. This one move would fix it.
         The truth is, this is just one example of how I have committed, for a long time, to ORs. One OR the other. To the pieces that fit, tossing out anything that doesn’t make it into the final picture I see for it. An “or” is a line down the middle. The very notion of an “or” is that you can’t have more than one option, and you certainly can’t mix some of them together, or blur a line.
         These “ors” play out even further beyond the imagery of our own individual lives. Within just the past few weeks this has been an obvious angst among ourselves in our own country. The marriage and healthcare decisions handed down by the supreme court, the murders in Charleston, the burnings of black churches…We demand that you pick a side. Ingrained in these conversations, and many just like it, is always a push to decide where you fall.
         Following the Charleston shootings I heard a lot of the same vocabulary we always hear after a large scale violent disaster perpetrated by an individual “He was sick, he was a sociopath…etc.”. Even when the things he wrote and said about people of color were brought to light, that rhetoric plays on. Because the truth is, we don’t want to deal with the idea that we are somehow at fault and that even our churches have deeply ingrained racial prejudices that allowed and encouraged something like this to happen. Even for those of us who DO acknowledge it, we quickly picked up on the evil to be eradicated. Take down the confederate flag. If we get it down, get rid of it, destroy this symbol, we can move on. We can breathe again. This isn’t to say that taking it down is a bad idea or not the right choice…we’d just rather petition for that than examine our own inherent biases and prejudices and look at all the blurred lines.
         We want to label the Charleston shooter as either sick OR racist. We’re for OR against gay marriage (we’re Christians or we’re not), the confederate flag represents racism OR it doesn’t. We’ve drawn the lines. Now fall into place.
         As I travailed my way through the classes and people at seminary and experienced a lot more of those “ors” I, too, started to dig my heels in even deeper. I became committed to my positions and to defending them firmly. After a lot of pushback and fighting and feeling alone in my corner, in a last ditch attempt to save my sanity I just dismissed it altogether. Just stopped talking and contributing. Did the bare minimum, or just pursued only topics I was interested in. It was all OR nothing. 
         During the writing of one of the papers I considered my little acts of rebellion, where-in I saw myself as the hero fighting against the seminary that didn’t want to talk about theories of injustice, I read an article about the playfulness of the Holy Spirit that talked about Jesus as “the holy fool”. For the author Robert Goss, Jesus isn’t about drawing lines in the sand or dealing with issues as good and evil behavior. He’s a jester in the court, poking fun at the structures and boxes we put ourselves in and the lines we draw in the sand. Jesus isn’t some super serious THIS IS THE NEW WAY AND HERE ARE MY RULES. Jesus is playful. He doesn’t draw the lines, He
 defies them, makes fun of them, blurs them in ways that make the people around him uncomfortable. In the passage we are reading today, at the end everybody is all happy and excited and talking about him as being so awesome and gracious and wonderful. Wouldn’t it be great to just end it there? Well, yes, but the rest of the passage happens. Here it is again, with the ending in place. Luke 4: 16-30
16 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, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 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?”

23 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.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 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; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

        Man does he make them mad. They are ready to throw him off a cliff! Sometimes I refer to Jesus as the ultimate troll. He really riles people up. Turns over tables in the temple, says the things people really don’t want to hear. Even here he blurs the lines. He tells the people in his home-town he isn’t going to tell them what they want to hear. He’s not going to just bring healing to the good Jews in his hometown. Jesus is going to bring healing to those outside the temple too. I imagine he knows this is going piss them right off and he says it with a twinkle in his eye and a smile playing at the corner of his mouth. He knows exactly what their reaction will be. So he goes on his way, leaving them to stew in the frustration of their world not just being turned upside down and their paradigms shifted, but all those things being totally and completely blasted away. He doesn’t continue the distinctions, but insists that they not be there at all. 
         The truth is, it makes me mad too. I don’t like to hear that I’m not going to get what I think I deserve and that I might be wrong. This week a really fun little puzzle from the New York Times went around on Facebook. I’m sorry I’m going to spoil it for you, because it really taught me a lot about how much I want to be correct. The goal was to figure out the pattern of some numbers and it gave you an opportunity to test your theory as many times as you would like without penalty and then write down what you thought the “rule” was. The first numbers they gave were 2, 4, and 8. So I did my first test. 4, 8, 16. SUCCESS! Okay, 100, 200, 400. ALSO SUCCESS. Okay, one last test. Just to make sure. 15, 30, 60. YES! Okay, this is easy. So I typed in my little rule and expected to be correct. Double the numbers, right? Ha ha this little game said. Not so fast. Thought my answers were technically correct, the only rule was that the next number had to be bigger than the last. Not only had I assumed this game had a trick up its sleeve, but I hadn’t bothered to test anything other than doubling the numbers. I had confined myself before I’d even begun. I didn’t want to hear “No”, so I stuck with my comfort zone and when I got the Yes I didn’t get outside my box and consider the alternative or even test something outside my original rule. I kept my theory and moved on.  Although it was correct, it didn’t consider other possibilities or nuances: that there could be something else outside of doubling the numbers or that it wasn’t as tricky as I was making it out to be. I don’t want to hear the hard truths and I don’t like to think I might be wrong. I really hate hearing that maybe I could have opened my mind a little bit to different possibilities or been kinder to those I disagree with. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
         I admit that I still want the happy ending. I want the right person in the castle at the end of the story. I want all the people in jail to be bad people. For people to just see the light on the obvious understandings of how the cycle of poverty works and to change themselves according my rules. I want them to just take down the confederate flag, and just see it my way. But really, when I think I’m building a castle of defense on these matters, I’m really building a grass hut in a hurricane. As soon as the wind blows it gets swept away.
         But the wonderful, loving, merciful God sends something so much more powerful than a scrawny little bungalow against a hurricane. God doesn’t send us a structure more powerful, but God takes on a human form gifts us not with shelter, but tells us the waters will be quelled, the lightning will cease, and the clouds will part. There will be a new life, a new world, a final perfect kingdom. Jesus is the fulfillment. It’s a good ending, but it’s not going to come in the ways we expect and want. Jesus isn’t here to be our confirmation bias.
          Scholar N.T. Wright tells us that God’s work is done because we are the very reflection, the creation of God through which God shows God’s presence. Thus, that work is done every time we advocate for the rights of the oppressed, every time we feed a homeless person, or teach a child, or sit with someone in the hospital, or fix a front porch, volunteer at the soup kitchen, open a door, adopt a stray animal, care for our neighbors and our enemies with love and kindness. It is also when we open our minds and study the scriptures and are willing to talk about the hard things. But it is not through our own self-preservation, or our own willingness, or our own need to do these thigns. We are empowered to do kingdom work through the Trinity, and through Christ’s kingdom proclamation. Jesus, THE holy fool wants us to be holy fools. To be willing to blur the lines. 
         One of my favorite seminary professors has been writing a lot about same sex marriage and the SCOTUS ruling. Around campus he is notorious, and has been speaking out especially recently about his movement from being a hard-line fundamentalist on issues like homosexuality to open and affirming. Here, in talking about reading scripture, he quotes Rachel Held Evans:
        “As Rachel Held Evans reminds us in her thoughtful blog, the “plain teaching of Scripture” has been used far too often to confirm what we already believe: to condemn racial integration, to oppose the ordination of women–even to reject the view that the earth goes around the sun, and not vice versa.  All of our readings of Scripture are interpretations of Scripture, built on who we are and where we stand. This means that we must read humbly and prayerfully, and be prepared to acknowledge the possibility that our reading has been misguided–or at least, that we can learn from a different approach.  Ms. Evans puts it very well:  “One need not discount the inspiration and authority of Scripture to hold one’s interpretations of Scripture with an open hand.”
         Approach not just scripture, but faith and life with an open hand. Ask questions, challenge your perspective, check your agenda at the door. Come into conversations and prayer and debate with the idea that “hey, I might be wrong and selfish and greedy here, even if I’m right. And especially when I’m right, may my hand be open to my neighbor. May I be willing to bust those barriers and blur the lines a little.” May we be holy fools.


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