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Sermon: The Offense of Grace

January 29, 2010

Luke 4:21-30

I have been stunned by the number of negative comments about the generosity of Americans who are helping the relief efforts in Haiti.  I’m not talking about representatives of foreign governments or Haitians who are frustrated because the situation on the ground is so chaotic.  I have been shocked at the number of Americans who are upset simply because we are helping people of another nation.

Several Facebook users wrote things such as “since we have so many poor and needy in our own country—including children—why are we sending money to help people somewhere else?” or “where were the Haitians when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.  They didn’t help us, so why should we help them?” or even “they are responsible for their own poverty.  They could have made changes in their government, but they didn’t, so it isn’t our responsibility to help.”  It is difficult for me to imagine hearing about the devastation that hit an already destitute population and not feel compassion.

Of course, it is easy for me to sit in judgment of the authors of those comments, but they are simply expressing a common human trait, even though they have taken their feelings far beyond what most of us do.  It is a fact that we human beings—along with many other animals—have a biological imperative to take care of our own.  We are built with an instinctive drive to protect those people who are closest to us.  I can bristle with anger if the checker at the grocery store is slightly rude to my wife, but my only thought when I see a traffic accident ahead of me on the freeway is “I hope this won’t make me late.”  And when the next serious earthquake hits Southern California, there will be millions of live affected, but my first thoughts will be for my own family.

It is right and good for us to take care of our own.  We should care for our families.  We should care for the millions in this country who are jobless and hungry, sick and without access to medical care, lost and lonely.  But I believe there is a compassionate part of us that also believes it is right to care for the unknown stranger on another shore as well as the stranger in our midst.  There is something in us that recognizes that common thread of humanity that binds us together.  That is why we pour millions of dollars from our own pockets into Haiti, and into a school in India and dozens of other places around the globe.

A common theme in scripture is the command to care for the widow, the orphan and the sojourner among us.  This theme is emphasized in the Torah, through the prophets and into the New Testament.  God says again and again to our ancestors in faith and to us, “Remember that you were once aliens in a foreign land, and you found comfort.  Do likewise.”  When we are living out our better selves, we can affirm that.  “Amen!” we cry.

But we are not always our better selves.  We hear the voice that reminds us of that.  When we are in the middle of wringing our hands over unmanageable immigration and the cost to taxpayers, and the drastic chances it brings to our society and to our neighborhoods, we hear the voice that reads aloud the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty,

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to be free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

http://www.statueofliberty.org/default_sol.htm

The voice says, “Remember that the door did not close right after your own ancestors made their way, tempest-tost, to this land to build a good life for their families.  The door is still open for others, even if they aren’t ‘your kind of people.’”

That voice upsets me.  And it disturbs me even more when it reminds me that when “my kind of people” did come to this place, there were already others who had been living here for millennia.  That voice is annoying.

Then, when there is a massive terrorist attack on our own soil, and even before the dust has settled on the rubble of the Federal building in Oklahoma City, we are placing the blame with extremists from another land and another culture who hate us, the voice speaks up again.  It says, “Remember, it isn’t only crazy foreigners that are capable of hate and senseless violence.  It is in your own soul, too.”  I want to throttle that voice.  I want to say “be quiet!  Now is not the time.  You don’t understand the world we live in.”  If I had my way, I’d be perfectly happy to throw the bearer of that voice off a cliff, just like the people of Nazareth wanted to throw Jesus out of their midst.

Jesus spoke with that same annoying voice in his hometown.  As soon as he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he launched in to a tirade.  “Of course you have heard of the amazing things I did in Capernaum and in Wilmington and in Long Beach.  But I won’t be doing those things here.  No doubt you remember the stories of our great prophets Elijah and Elisha.  There were plenty of needy people in our own land, but those great men went somewhere else—to Haiti and Afghanistan and Iran—and fed hungry widows and healed desperate lepers.”

It seemed to come out of nowhere.  The people were perfectly pleased with Jesus until that moment.  After his speech, though, they were ready to throw him off the cliff.  They tried, but somehow Jesus simply slipped through their midst and walked away.

That’s why I would never let Jesus preach here in this church.  I’m afraid he might make us angry or offend us.  I don’t want the next headline in The Daily Breeze to be “San Pedro Methodists throw Jesus off cliff.”  I don’t think Jesus would say those things to us because we’re evil.  We’re not.  We do a lot of good for a lot of people, many of whom we will never meet.  I don’t believe the people in Jesus’ hometown synagogue at Nazareth were evil, either.  They were probably good, faithful, compassionate people.

So why, Jesus?  Why incite us?  Nobody likes to be nagged.  Don’t you have a nice story about a mustard seed or lilies of the field?  Tell us again about the time you fed the crowd with fish and bread.  We like that story.

Maybe Jesus talks like that to us because he knows how important it is for us to hear.  The Bible does tell us that we should take care of our own, but it tells us much more often that we should have compassion for the stranger—the widow, the orphan and the sojourner.  Our biological drive to care for those closest to us is strong, and our understanding of and compassion for our common humanity is less so.  That’s just the way we are programmed.  Nobody has to tell me to take care of my wife, children and granddaughter.  But when a stranger walks into my office and it is obvious she needs help, I have to remind myself to be compassionate, to treat that person as if she were Jesus.

If it weren’t for Jesus sometimes speaking to me in that irritating voice, that says to me, “Eric, that man, who fried his brain with heroin years ago, who now can’t take care of himself, well, he’s as much a child of God as your granddaughter is.  And his momma and daddy love him just like your parents love you,” if it weren’t for that voice, I’d probably be a cold, hard man, with a fortress around my family and around my heart, keeping everything only for myself and the ones I love.  And I know that’s not my best self.

Jesus knows our human nature.  He lived it.  He most certainly struggled with his biological imperative to care for his own as well as the divine imperative to care for the stranger.  I guess I’ve got to listen when he reminds me of my duty toward others.

The truth is that there can be enough amazing grace for me and for others.  There can be enough love for me and for others.  There can be enough compassion for me and for others.  There can be enough forgiveness for me and for others.  Yeah, I guess Jesus is right.

But still, don’t you just want to throw him off a cliff sometimes?

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