Posted by: owizblog | February 3, 2013

Home Is Where The Heat (sic) Is, Part II: Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back To The Synagogue. Sermon UCB 3 Feb 2013

For a few years I had, on my study door in Kilbarchan East, a postcard I bought in a bookshop in Cambridge. I haven’t seen it since we moved; it’ll be there somewhere. It’s an odd one. I can’t say I treasure it, but it says something that struck me oddly forcefully, something that struck me as important.

Remember: You’re Special! Just Like Everybody Else…

I was sitting in a pew last week – it was in Trinity, actually, at their midweek service, on a Thursday at 11.15. (Always happy to do a commercial for our sister congregation!) It’s lovely, if you’re a Minister, to be ministered to, whether it’s by my friend Drew Barrie, or as on Thursday there by our own David Mcfie. I was listening to your sermon, David, and was impressed enough to have flirted with the idea of pinching it!

But I was also struck by the way the whole service set me up to hear in a fresh way the words of a hymn I’ve sung dozens of times. We all have.

Make me a channel of your peace…
And the chorus in particular:
“O Master, grant that I may never seek
So much to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love with all my soul…”

And I found myself thinking: those are incredibly demanding words. When you hear them – I mean, really hear them – it’s very hard to want what they ask for us. Should we – could we – in honesty sing them at all?

I want to be consoled. I want to be understood. I want to be loved. Don’t we all?

To be able to pray, honestly, I want to be able not to care about those things… I want to move out beyond self, in the direction of the other, the person who isn’t me… That’s surely an immense thing.

And very difficult.


“O Master, grant that I may never seek… to be loved as to love with all my soul…”

Remember: You’re Special! Just Like Everybody Else…


We looked last week at Jesus’ homecoming to Nazareth – to the Synagogue, on the Sabbath . He’d already made a name for himself – horrible phrase, but that’s how the people of Nazareth would have seen it – preaching teaching, healing in the places round about, where they didn’t know him. Now they would get a chance to see how he’d changed in the short while since he’d left. Not that they expected he would have. “Kent his faither…”

He did the reading; he chose the Isaiah passage

“Then” says Luke “ he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Even that isn’t too much for them. “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?’”

It’s all going really well! Even despite that weasly little “Kent his faither…” bit at the end!

It’s looking good…

There’s a scene in an episode of the marvellous American sitcom Frasier, in which Frasier’s brother, Niles, is trying to bring back together the parents of his bride-to-be Daphne, who, yet again, have split up spectacularly. It’s a difficult proposition, but Niles has got them both, together with his family and Daphne, to an incredibly posh, swish restaurant for a scarily expensive meal. It seems to be doing the trick. Then Niles remembers that he’s left the very special and expensive bottle of wine meant for the big toast of the evening, in his car. He leaves everything going swimmingly well. We follow him to the car, and back to the restaurant with his wine-bottle. He’s gone maybe thirty-five, forty seconds. (I’ve never timed it.) He opens the restaurant door on a scene of utter madness; waiters trying to stamp out a fire on the carpet, others putting out a fire on a table, others engaaaged in a brawl with customers, all of whom seem to be fighting each other…

And everybody else is engaged in separating, and holding apart, Daphne’s parents, who appear to be intent on strangling each other…

What happened? In less than a minute?

It’s even faster at the Nazareth synagogue.

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth…”

Twenty-six seconds later…


“[A]ll in the synagogue were filled with rage.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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

What went wrong?

Well, this did – and the average length it took for me to read through Jesus’ words in this passage was, as I hinted, twenty-six seconds.

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.’ Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Now, that all goes by so quickly that we’ve no chance of picking out of it what makes the synagogue congregation in Nazareth that day go from approving to murderously hostile in twenty-six seconds.

It’s exactly like what happens when two children are playing happily, and their parents are mystified when one of them goes supernova, and the other loses it right back, and suddenly they are both at each other’s throats. Something was said. The parents probably heard it. But it was so quick, and it pressed all the right buttons so precisely, that they will have no idea why what was said produced an explosion like this.

There’s no way round it. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel provokes the people in the synagogue in Nazareth. He winds them up. Against himself…

Let’s unpack it.


He puts away the scroll, and says “Today, in your hearing, the truth of this has come among you in its fullness.” And they nod, and they murmur. Good start. This is why those people from those other places round about had such an opinion of our boy. Great start! Let’s see what he can do. This is going to be good.

buddy jesus

And Jesus says, in effect:
“You like what you just heard. Impressive. Good speaker. Never knew the local boy had it in him. This, you’re thinking, is what they were talking about in Caesarea, and the other places, and this is what, you reckoned, you’d heard on the grapevine from these places. This, plus a whole lot more. He didn’t just talk, this Nazareth boy, in those other places. He did things. Let’s see some of that! That’s what you’re all thinking, isn’t it? Let’s see the good stuff! The miracles.

Well, you’re not going to.”

And he reminds them of some tales from the Old Testament. Of a famine over all the land, of everyone suffering – but of only one house to which Elijah the prophet comes, promising to the widow woman who lives there that if she shares her meagre supplies with him, flour, oil, all the family has – and not much of it – they won’t run out. And mysteriously, they don’t. So what does that say about the people who didn’t have a mysterious prophetic food-source in their kitchen when there was no food anywhere else?

And what of all the lepers in Israel who don’t find their way to Elisha’s hovel, for that prophet to heal them? Why is it only Naaman, the Syrian general, who is cleansed?

That’s just the way it is.

You sit there, thinking “We’re special!”We are the people!” But the things that have been done elsewhere won’t be done here.


That’s what they hear. And what they also hear is

You’re just not that special.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t say that. But there’s something about the logic of his argument that leads the congregation in that synagogue to think it. What Jesus actually says is actually much closer to “’Special’ isn’t what you think it is, and you aren’t special in that way because nobody is…”

But what they hear is:

You’re just not that special.

And they want to kill him. And they have a jolly good go. Because he has assaulted something in them, they feel. They are God’s people, the special people. The synagogue people, the people of faith. They are the people who should have the privilege of seeing God’s miracles. They are the people who should have the privilege of God’s special care and protection in a way that’s different to other people.

At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus says to people who think like this: faith isn’t about special protection, special exemption, special ringside seats at the miracles that are done in God’s name.

And at the very end of his ministry, Jesus of Nazareth hangs on a cross and dies, with no special protection, no special exemption, no miracle to save him.

And then comes Easter…

But Easter isn’t the happy ending after the awful horror of the cross. Easter isn’t what puts it all right after it all went wrong on Good Friday. Easter has no meaning without Good Friday.

A story of a Jesus who was run over by a chariot and rose again wouldn’t be a Gospel.

The Gospel is the story of the Christ who comes among us with no special exemptions, no special protection, and ultimately no miracle to save him from the consequences of a humanity that can do nothing else, when the love of God comes among them, but crucify it.

And it becomes the story of a love which won’t stay dead even when you kill it, that won’t stop loving even when you hate it, that won’t plead special exemption when you vent everything that’s horrible in you on it.


But it’s also a love that makes you look at yourself.

I’ve mentioned before to you that Martin Luther, that terribly complicated man who fathered the Reformation in Germany, had an expression for sinful man. “Man wrapped up in himself.” Homo involutus in se.

A human person so convinced of her own specialness, her own marvellousness, that nothing else is real to her. No-one else is real to her.

That’s who’s sitting in the synagogue in Nazareth that morning, when Jesus opens the scroll of Isaiah. That’s who sits back, and says to the person sitting next; “This is going to be good!”

Holy Willie

D’you know who it is? It’s me!

Me when I think, in the words of that wee hymn “I’m special because God has loved me!” Me, when I confess my sins the way Willie Fisher, Elder of Mauchline does:

Yet I am here a chosen sample
To show thy grace is great and ample
I’m here a pillar o’ Thy temple
Strong as a rock.
A guide, a buckler and example
To all thy flock.

And all the rest of it – “What was I, or my generation/ That I should get sic exaltation…?” “[W]e are dust, defil’d wi’ sin…” is just pious rot – or in proper, theological language, total mince – because with Holy Willie, the bottom line is:

That I am here afore thy sight
For gifts and grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.

Mauchline. Nazareth. We are the people. I am the man.

Except that’s not the bottom line. Because such a monstrously huge sense of self-importance, of self worth – of self at the expense of anybody else – is, as Burns saw with Holy Willie, stretched tight over something even more horrible. A sense of emptiness, of nothingness, of tininess and insignificance.

It’s the horrible fear that if I’m not everything, I’m nothing. If I’m not God, or at least God’s favourite, I don’t even register as existing.



But when the self fills the universe, and deposes God, and makes God in its own image, it dies. It collapses in on itself in selfishness, fear and despair. It just wants what it wants, to make itself feel secure and important and loved. And it loses the ability to see others and their needs. It loses the ability to grant others their place in the world – because others are a threat, and love is a zero sum game – if God loves anybody else, God loves me less…

And that’s why St. Francis’ Prayer – Make me a channel of your peace – strikes us as such a hard, hard demand. This is the huge mountain it’s pushing against, a mountainous self that fills the horizon, fills the world.


I’ve got myself into a position, haven’t I, where you just know that the next thing I’m going to have to say is that “Faith can move mountains.”

Which is true. But that’s because faith isn’t a blind, blithe hoping for the best, a trust in a magical God who makes all the difficulties melt away.

The people in the synagogue in Nazareth were looking for a miracle that would impress them in a jiffy, something quick, slick, and full of the wow-factor, a show that God would put on for godly them, through – well, through whoever this was who’d lived among them for three decades and was now coming back for them to sum up and judge.

That was never going to happen. Because for them the only miracle on offer is the miracle of a faith that bears with things as they are, with the world as it really is, while they discover that they aren’t the centre of it.

And that that’s actually all right…

Remember: You’re Special! Just Like Everybody Else…

How can we love, if we don’t know that God loves us as we are? But how
can we know the love of God, unless we are prepared to love others as ourselves? To move outside of our selves, to leave self behind?

We’re special because we are called to be disciples. To lay aside self. To follow this Jesus, and put others at the centre of the universe, not because some terrifying religious authority tells us to, but because the Love of God gives us the confidence to.

Remember: You’re Special! Just Like Everybody Else…

The people in the synagogue at Nazareth couldn’t do that. Instead they try to bring forward the crucifixion by a few seasons. And that’s exactly what they’re doing, because the crucifixion is brought about by exactly the same forces and responses that are in play that day in Nazareth.

But it’s not time.

Like something out of the Goodies – and we miss the point if we miss the visual comedy of this – Jesus slips out of the scrum and leaves them all locked in a punch-up that no longer has him at the centre of it.


But soon, it will be time. And on his road from Nazareth to Golgotha, Jesus will be accompanied by the disciples he’s called.

And to them – and to us – he spells out what’s so special, and so demanding about our calling.

We need to hear that from him. And we need, as we come to the Table, to respond to his call. Please turn to number in Junior Praise.

Hear the Word of God. Our Gospel reading for today is from that according to Matthew, at chapter five, reading from verse 1 to verse 12.

The Beatitudes.
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

And I invite you to read just the first verse and chorus of Junior Praise number 161, Make me a channel of your peace, and make it your prayer, as well as mine, as we come to communion.

NOTES: The “NARCISSISM” poster above comes from this page, which makes some interesting observations indirectly connected with the theme of this sermon.

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