|Bansky's family picnic: As offensive as Jesus' meals, for the opposite reasons.|
For Third Advent, Year A. Based on Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat), James 5:7-10, and Matthew 11:2-11.
And Jesus said "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." To which someone in the crowd immediately mumbled under their breath "Who does this guy think he is anyway? The Son of God?"
Today I want to deliver an offensive sermon. No, not in the sense that I want to offend you. I don't want to offend anyone here. And if you are offended by what I say today, please, blame it on Fr. Chuck. But, instead of being offensive myself, I want to talk about the kinds of things that offend US, and what on earth people could possibly find offensive about JESUS.
I've been to graduate school and spent many years studying theology, and one thing I have learned is that different kinds of things offend different kinds of religious groups. Depending on what religious group you are part of, different things are "the unforgivable sin".
I've learned that for Baptists, it's not saying the sinner's prayer. If you don't repent and accept Jesus, you're going straight to heck. For Catholics, you go purgatory by missing confession, and dying without last rites. And for Episcopalians, the unforgivable sin is mixing up the salad fork and dinner fork at a formal dinner.
So, what offends you? What makes your blood boil? What words, actions, and attitudes click a button inside of you that says "This is a slap in the face to everything that I hold dear! This is an affront to proper decorum and social manners, which tears at the very fabric of polite society!"
Is it a bad English accent? A foul mouth? Bad manners? Rap music? The wrong clothes? The wrong kinds of questions? The wrong kinds of answers?
What offends you?
Jesus offended people during his first Advent among us. The word for "offend" in the original Greek of this passage is "skandalizo". From it we get the word "scandal". Jesus scandalized the respectable people of his age.
He was seen as an affront to proper decorum and social manners, and his teachings were a scandal that tore at the very fabric of polite society. Our Gospel passage today says that when Jesus showed up "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them".
At first hearing, this sounds great to us. We tend to think: "Oh, how good for those lepers! They have such a hard lot in life, and it is so very kind of Jesus to give them a leg up! Say, we should start a charitable society to buy Christmas gifts for leper children!"
As long as we keep the lepers of the world at arm's reach, out of sight, out of mind. We find it easy to love them from a distance, in theory, with donations. But have you ever spent time with a leper? Someone who is slowly falling apart physically and emotionally? Someone who is unbathed, uncouth, and smells like decay? Someone whose needs far exceed your time or patience or resources?
THOSE are the kinds of people Jesus kept near him. THOSE are the kinds of people Jesus touched. THOSE are the kinds of people Jesus ate with, talked with, laughed with and cried with.
And that is JUST the lepers. Can you imagine committing your life to minister to the needs of the blind? Learning sign language to be the ears for the deaf? Bringing the poor good news that their crushing poverty wasn't the end of the story, but there was hope beyond their current circumstances? Living in places of death and yet embracing the hope of eternal life?
Jesus not only tolerated these people, but he made them part of his new extended family of disciples. And this deeply offended people who had worked so hard in life to make things stable comfortable and predictable. They had shaped their personal lives, their religious lives, their social lives and their economic lives so they didn't have to deal with these kinds of rif raf. And now Jesus brings them face to face with everything that is messy in life.
And it offended them. Deeply.
Where did this Jesus guy get all of this from anyway? You know, I heard a story about his mom, Mary. I heard that when she found out she was having a baby, she sang a song. But it wasn't the ordinary song of joy you might sing when finding out such good news: "I'm having a baaaaby! I'm having a baaaaby!"
No, in the Song of Mary we hear her sing: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord! He has scattered the proud in their conceit! He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly! He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty!"
Now THAT is offensive. She predicts that through this baby, God will upset the very social order we are so accustomed to! God will overturn the tables of stable society. And as Jesus grew up with his mom, we can imagine how he learned to see the world differently, to think differently, and to act differently. As the old saying goes, "the nut doesn't fall far from the tree!"
And when we read about the core group of twelve disciples that followed Jesus, the Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus called "Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor." [Luke 6.14–16]
Now, you really start to grasp what a motley crew of offensive disciples these were when you learn their backgrounds. The name Peter means "Rock" or "Rock like". Peter was a hard working, occasionally foul mouthed fisherman, who had a bad habit of acting and speaking before thinking.
One minute Jesus is congratulating him for understanding that Jesus is the Messiah. The very next moment Jesus is calling him "Satan" for missing the point. Perhaps Jesus even named him Peter because occasionally he had rocks in his head. And Peter was the LEADER of this group.
James and John were brothers and fishermen who were nicknamed "the Sons of Thunder". And I'm guessing that is NOT because of their kind and gentle method of "conflict resolution".
Matthew was a tax collector before he chose to follow Jesus. For those of you who don't know, Tax Collectors were traitors to their own people. Tax collectors were Jews who took tax money from their fellow Jews to give it to the occupying Roman Army, and they often collected hefty amounts of interest on the tax money to line their own pockets.
Then you have Simon the Zealot. In Jesus' day, Zealots were actually a political group dedicated to the violent overthrow of Roman rule, and swift punishment for Jews who had collaborated with the Romans. In fact, Zealots had a lot more similarities to Al Kaida than to an American political party.
The list continues with Thomas, the most skeptical of the twelve who questioned everything. It included the second James, who was Jesus' brother. And finally, the list ends with a traitor. Judas. Someone who sold out Jesus and the whole Jesus movement for thirty pieces of silver. And yet, perhaps most offensive of all, Jesus loved Judas too.
If you will, imagine how offensive some of the early dinners with Jesus must have been. Jesus and the twelve gather at a table, surrounded by social misfits and outcasts. Former lepers, beggars, and prostitutes look on as Jesus prepares the table.
Matthew the Tax collector and Simon the Zealot eye each other with suspicion and mistrust. Judas cozies up to Jesus, keeping the money bag always in reach. James and John's booming voices are engaged in yet another verbal battles. Peter tries to tell Jesus how he should be setting the table.
And yet somehow THAT was a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. At that very table, Jesus was visibly enacting the reconciliation of all things-- the reunion of all different kinds of people-- around one central person: The person of God in human flesh. And over time, as these mutually messy, often offensive disciples ate together, and served together, and travelled together, and laughed together, and wept together, something incredible happened.
They got it.
They realized that welcoming the Advent of God in Jesus was also somehow all tied up with welcoming each other too. Loving God was somehow connected with Loving people they would never have chosen to associate with if given the choice. Because God's face wasn't just seen in Jesus alone, it was seen by looking past what offends us, and looking into the eyes of those we disagree with.
James, who was at those meals, doubtless had these experiences in the back of his mind when he wrote to his community: "You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged."
James speaks of patience. It was patience that allowed Jesus disciples to see past the offense of each other, and welcome God's life in one another.
James says "the coming of the Lord is near". Indeed. It is always just around the corner. God is present in the next person you meet, whether you welcome them or snub them. Jesus is present not only in the sacrament of the altar, but also in the elbow of the person you kneel next to.
James tells us "do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged". Because if we get so wrapped up in our issues, our expectations, our offended-ness, we may just miss how God wants to reach us, in this person, at this time.
I have a this habit of being horribly offended when I meet people who will later be very important in my life. There's my best friend Bo. I've known Bo since we were high school freshmen on the football team. The first year we knew each other, we hated each other for being insufferably arrogant and full of ourselves. And we were both right! And now we are both clergy. God is ironic.
Then there is my good friend Molly, who has led me and my youth groups on short term mission trips in places around the world. When I first met Molly I thought she was loud and weird. And I was right. But God has used Molly's loudness and weirdness dozens of times to reach people I never could.
After countless relationships like Bo and Molly, it's gotten to the point that, when I meet someone who offends me, I ask God what He's trying to tell me!
Jesus says, in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats found in Matthew chapter 25, that we encounter HIM when we feed the hungry, serve the needy, welcome the stranger, embrace the alien, visit the prisoner, and encourage the oppressed. Jesus says "whatever we have done to the least of those around us, we have done to him".
So, who offends you? Who is least to you? Who would you rather ignore, demean or demonize? It may be THAT very person that God wants to speak to you through.
Now, if you are an Aggie, I'm not here to convince you that you should be a Longhorn. And if you are a wear burnt orange, I'm saying you should bleed maroon. If you are staunch Republican, I'm not saying that you should become a Democrat. And if you are a Democrat, I'm not telling you to join the GOP. If you are convinced of the merits of a traditional American family, I'm not telling you to accept more postmodern views of the family. And if you embrace different ways of being family, I'm not telling you to reject that for traditional family.
I'm not trying to convince you how you vote, who should live in your house, where you send your kids to school, or how you style your hair. These are all between you and Jesus. And I implore you to study your Bibles, search your hearts, and seek your Savior about how He is best honored in all of these decisions.
But I am trying to convince you that if you cannot look into the eyes of those you disagree with-- those who offend you-- and see the life of God in them, then you are missing the point. If you cannot see Jesus in every person-- from the bum on the corner, to the jerk who just cut you off in traffic, to the politician whose policies make your blood boil-- if you cannot see at least a glimmer of Jesus in them, then you are missing out on the Advent.
Because at a base level, that is what Advent is all about: The arrival, the making-present of Jesus our Lord, right here and right now. Not just 2000 years ago. Not just 2000 years in the future. But seeing, meeting, greeting, serving Jesus in the present tense, as we welcome those who are made in his image.
No matter how much they offend us.