A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30 

It’s a story told in two parts, this Gospel account of the first sermon Jesus preached back in his hometown of Nazareth. Last week, we heard the part where he promised liberation from all the things that hold people back from living full and free human lives.

And then in today’s continuation of the story, he suddenly starts to criticize the people in the synagogue, and in response they’re “filled with rage.” They’re so angry they drive him to the edge of town, where they would have pushed him over the edge of a cliff except that he somehow manages to vanish into the crowd and walk away. 

I think it’s difficult—at least I hope it’s difficult—for a modern congregation to understand the emotion behind that murderous outburst toward the preacher. But maybe that’s how it always is with rage: It’s irrational, beyond understanding. 

So we might be tempted to look at the story and feel a bit superior to the people in the synagogue that day. It’s hard to imagine us treating any guest preacher that way.

Because we aren’t like that. Are we?    

But I wonder if we really are all that different.

We live in an angry, angry world. It’s a driving force in our civil discourse. You see it in campaign rallies on TV and closer to home you see it at school board meetings and town board meetings. It permeates the social media world, if you’re into that.

And the last half of January was one of those times when it seemed that every time I turned to the news there was a story about another incident of seemingly irrational unprovoked violence.

And we don’t just encounter that rage at a distance. We come against it—or at least I certainly do— in my ordinary life, as well.

When Chris and I were on vacation in our bishop’s home state of New Mexico last November, and flying into Santa Fe, we were on a relatively small plane. And I was surprised and not particularly pleased when we got to the gate and they made asked us to give over our carry-on luggage. 

And I was surprised again, but in a good way, when we got off the plane, we came down the tall stairs onto the tarmac and there were all the suitcases waiting for us. If anything, it was nice not to have to deal with it on the plane.

Well, on the way back, in the airport waiting room, which was crowded, there was a very well-put-together grown woman who was carrying on like a nasty 2-year-old—I mean, really carrying on—because they wanted to take her suitcase. And she demanded to keep it with her. There was no room on the plane, really, for anything of that size. She 

She was convinced she was going to miss her connecting flight if she didn’t keep it with her, and she was letting them know about her unhappiness 

let them have it, and she was making her feelings known in no uncertain terms. And considering the rage she was directing at the airline employee, and considering the rage she was directing at the airline employees, I thought it was a good thing there wasn’t a cliff nearby.

And when that customer service person went away to get a superior to deal with the situation, I told her I was sure it would be OK, it would be there waiting for her, and she could pick it up and go on her way to her connecting flight.

Well, she had a few choice words for me, too. I really was just trying to reassure her, but it seems she wasn’t reassured. And so I backed off and let the people who were paid to deal with it take over.

Anger. Simple anger can be a good thing. It can motivate us to do something about the all of the wrongs and injustices of this world. But when anger turns to rage and lashes out at others, that’s something else again.

And I really think we can learn something from this story about the rage of the mob in Nazareth.

When that crowd at the synagogue was about to turn, Jesus knew what was in their hearts, because he knew these people. He had grown up with them. He lived and worked among them. And he knew really what they were thinking.

And he looked at them that day and he saw that their emotions were going to turn on their belief that they were entitledto God’s favor. Why should theybe denied the good things that Jesus did for the people in Capernaum? And surely those foreignersthat he mentioned—the widow in Sidon, and Naaman the leper—surely those foreigners didn’t deserve to experience the healing grace of God if Nazareth didn’t.

Jesus knew that they wouldn’t receive God’s mercy as a gift that filled them with gratitude. They were filled with rage instead at the idea that Jesus wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. What they expected. What they deserved, because they were special.

Like the woman who was convinced that entitled to carry her suitcase onto the plane, when no one else was allowed to, because there was no place to put it.

So I think that entitlement, that kind of entitlement is exactly what this Gospel is all about. 

The people in the synagogue liked it when Jesus told them he came to be an agent of God’s mercy. 

But when he started talking about the way God had shown mercy to outsiders—to foreigners—they didn’t like that at all. They were sure that they deserved God’s favor, and they were sure that all those other people didn’tdeserve it, and their response was that they were filled with rage. Beyond anger to rage.

If you go searching the Internet for information about the modern field of anger management, you’ll find a lot of advice. “20 tips to stay cool … “ and “Why is everyone so g_d_ angry?”

Why is everyone so g_d_ angry?

Anyway, so here’s examples of what you find:  

Listen to music. Practice relaxation skills. Get some exercise to release your stress.[1][2]

But if you look at the wisdom of this Gospel I think you find something deeper that’s much deeper than that. It suggests that the process of getting past anger and resentment begins with taking a good look at ourselves, into our own hearts, and asking ourselves if there are places in our own lives where we feel entitled to benefits that people who are different from us don’t deserve.

I think it takes the grace of God to let go of our self-defenses and our self-righteousness, and to rise above the mantras of our political tribe—whichever that might be—and to be brutally honest with ourselves about this, to see ourselves as we really are. But I think that everything that Jesus ever taught says that have to do that kind of self-examination and let go of that sense of entitlement.

And I see another lesson in this Gospel in the way Jesus made his surprising escape.

Was it a miracle, or was he able to avoid the crowd simply just because he was a non-anxious presence, a person of true inner peace who didn’t respond to the angry emotions of the crowd?

In a mob that was blind with rage, they couldn’t even see him as he simply walked away.

And I don’t think his gym membership was the anger-management thing that did the trick in giving him that inner peace. I think he was a person who was totally grounded. He knew who he was; he knew what he was all about.

As we saw in the Gospel a couple of weeks ago, the one where he heard the voice from heaven after his baptism, Jesus knew he was loved by the Father. And he was grounded in personal prayer.

I think prayer can do that for us, too. It can help us to know who we are and whose we are, and that connection can ground us in God’s love, so that we can be secure enough to share that love with others.

So of course there are a lot of different ways to pray, a lot of different ways to find peace through connection with God. And with our parish art show coming up later this month, the one I want to talk about today is one that we don’t usually think of first. It’s connection through beauty and art.

And living where we do, in this beautiful area, I think we’re especially are called to be grounded in the beauty of the created world, and to experience “the wonder of our gaze”—that’s a quote from the priest and poet John O’Donohue and it’s also the title of our art show: “The wonder of our gaze.”

O’Donohue said,“The earth is full of thresholds”—and I think that what he means here is thresholds to the presence of God—“The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the wonder of our gaze.” [3]

We live in an angry world, a world that increasingly seems torn apart by rage directed at people who are different—different religion, different skin color, different ethnicity—and again, it feels as if every time I turn to the news I hear another example of that.

There’s another Irish poet named Michael Longley, and he wrote his poems for years against the backdrop of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants met each other with rage and violence.

In a radio interview with Krista Tippett, Longley said, “My wife used to say that she hoped Northern Ireland would become like the rest of the world, and she now points out that the rest of the world is becoming as Northern Ireland used to be.”[4]

That seems all too sadly true to me.  

Longley wrote about The Troubles and the violence in his poems, but he also wrote a lot about the beauty of this world around him. 

In that radio interview, he quoted another poet, John Clare, who said, “Poets love nature, and themselves are love.” 

“And I believe that with all my heart,” Longley said. “And part of writing is adoration. For me, celebrating the wildflowers or the birds is a kind of worship.”

And I think that the sharing of art and creativity in our own art show is much the same, and I hope if you’re able that you’ll come to the show and participate—especially Friday evening, when you can meet the artists—and appreciate their work and the beauty it reflects, the beauty of this world.

I do believe that becoming people of peace ourselves is the first step toward healing our world of violence and rage. 

We begin by following the example of Jesus, grounding ourselves in connection to God. Only with God’s grace—and in the certainty that we are loved—will we be able to get past our own sense of entitlement.

When we’re grounded in God’s love—when we know who we are and why we’re here—then we can show the rest of the world what true peace really looks like. Amen.


[1]https://medium.com/swlh/why-is-everyone-so-goddamn-angry-all-the-time-a6b5c485a8e0

[2]https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/20-things-when-you-feel-extremely-angry.html

[3]John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace.

[4]https://onbeing.org/programs/the-vitality-of-ordinary-things-apr2018/