Epiphany 4C – 2/3/19
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, VA
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
When is the last time you were outraged? I don’t mean frustrated by an empty coffee pot (horrors!) or irritated by a fellow driver who thinks their needs outweigh your much-more-legitimate desire to get to church on time. I mean OUTRAGE, sparked perhaps by a headline in the paper or a meme on Facebook that signals — once again — the imminent decline of our civilization. Something like the shocking picture from Governor Northam’s yearbook; or that video of high school students facing down a Native elder; or even trash talk about a certain New England football team winning ANOTHER Super Bowl tonight ¾ unless, of course, the Patriots are YOUR team and then it’s not outrage, it’s prophecy.
In today’s gospel, the folks in the Nazareth synagogue were outraged, and they had good reason to be, because they had just heard something outrageous. And not from some distant source but from one of their own ¾ a home boy half of them had helped raise. Today’s scene opens with a recap of the gospel we heard last week: Jesus entered the synagogue in his home town on the Sabbath, recited the 600-year-old words of the prophet Isaiah, and promised his neighbors, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If this were a film, it would fade out with a glow.
Today, though, we tune in to the sequel, and it’s a shocker.
At first, it looks like everything is going smoothly, as the congregation admires the gracious words of the preacher — “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”. But they weren’t really listening to what he read. And who can blame them, really? Even the most scalding words of scripture, repeated over centuries, can lose their heat, and heart-rending lamentation sound more like a lullaby.
Jesus, you may recall, had just spent time alone — alone with his Father, and his own temptations — in the desert (we’ll hear more of that story in just a few weeks). He must have spent those 40 days and nights listening in his heart to the words of the psalms and the prophets, including the words of Isaiah, lodged in his memory though countless repetitions.
A little cartoon came my way this week, showing Jesus speaking to five modern people, clutching Bibles – preachers, perhaps? – saying: “The difference between me and you is, you use scripture to determine what love means; I use love to determine what scripture means.” (REPEAT)
As Paul reminds us today, without love, we are nothing.
So using love as his lens, Jesus recalled the passage from Isaiah 61 in a powerful way, accepting as his mission these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor….” And all the rest of those healing, hopeful words.
If only he could have left it there, he might not have left home forever.
Because good news to the poor sounds so sweet that it’s easy to forget the upending, the disturbance, the reversal it involves.
Maybe that’s why, while his family and friends were still remarking at his “gracious” words, his talk becomes grating. Proclaiming himself a prophet in their midst, he flings an accusation: Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ Had they heard about how he’d healed people in the villages he passed through on his way home? Do they expect he will do the same in Nazareth ¾ where surely all their desires were known and very few secrets were hidden? Why on earth would he NOT rescue them from their troubles?
Unless to make the point that his vocation was to something wider, deeper, broader.
Unless to dramatically break ties with his hometown so that he could call ALL people to a new kind home.
Unless interpreting “good news to the poor” through the lens of love had stretched his heart to the breaking point.
So, through a heart that breaks for ALL God’s people — the poor, the marginalized, the wounded ones — he proceeds to tell the Nazarenes just how widely God’s mercy will work through him. And it is too much for them to bear.
Now, I sympathize with the Nazarenes in what happens next — to a point. It’s easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to judge them harshly for not seeing who Jesus was. As far as they knew, he was one of them – and who THEY were, was God’s chosen people, God’s favorite children.
So when Jesus reminded his neighbors that the long-ago prophets Elijah and Elisha brought God’s mercy to Gentiles ¾ feeding the widow of Zarephath, healing the leper of Syria ¾ they were not just irritated. They were OUTRAGED.
That’s an easy emotion for us to comprehend. So easy, in fact, that these days people talk about outrage fatigue. Writing in the magazine Psychology Today, a therapist named Dean Olsher says that when we experience outrage daily over terrible things that we cannot control, it makes us feel helpless and can lead to depression. Amid hourly political bombast, routine violence, and constant assaults on civility, outrage is a ready response for me, and maybe for you.
But to combat outrage fatigue, Olsher suggests taking action, even something as simple as writing a postcard to a lawmaker.
I suggest (preaching to myself here!) we also learn to tamp down our outrage reflex, not wasting it on passing folly, but reserving it for the scandals that break God’s heart, like hunger in the midst of our nation’s prosperity, like violence and homelessness and every injustice that violates the law of love. These are the real outrages of our time.
* * *
What happens next in our gospel story is an OUTRAGE I never noticed until I learned this story by heart to teach the children who sit in my Godly Play circles. They are horrified when they hear that the people of Nazareth responded to Jesus with violence, trying to hurl him off the cliff at the edge of town — an alternative to stoning someone who blasphemes, as they believe Jesus has just done. But Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
WHAT? my students ask. How did he do that? Was it magic? Did he have an invisibility cloak?
A painting called “The Brow of the Hill” sheds light on the answer. Looking at this painting intently, I cannot find Jesus in it. Instead, I see dozens of men, all gesturing wildly and exclaiming angrily to each other, and I wonder: Were they so wrapped up in their own wrath that they hardly noticed when the object of their outrage slipped away?
Never to return to Nazareth again, but to spend his life, to give his life, in outrageous acts of love: to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, bind up the brokenhearted, recover sight for the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
In this year of the Lord’s favor, as followers of our Lord, will we too bring good news to the poor, news that is not just words, but action? Will we take action for our neighbors who are hungry, afraid, violated, rejected, imprisoned? I believe we can break through our fatigue and be outraged on their behalf. And then, like Jesus, might we perform outrageous acts of love.
 Dean Olsher, “A Cure for Outrage Fatigue,” Psychology Today, December 28, 2018.
 “Brow of the Hill Near Nazareth,” by James Jacques Tissot, watercolor, between 1886 and 1894, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY.