Sunday 24 January
Luke: 4: 14-21.
I Corinthians: 12: 12-31 a.
There are several version of a most poignant story I heard many years ago. I am going to share the one that I think is most likely to be true. At the Seattle Paralympics, in 1976, nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground and began to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him. Then without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction—toward the injured boy.
While the other contestants struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them then linked arms and together they walked to the finish line. By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering, some with tears rushing down their faces. Even though by turning back and helping the boy who fell, they lost their own chance to win the race, they all had smiles on their faces because they knew they had done the right thing.
The reason that many people resonated deep within their hearts with this great act of compassion and solidarity, is that it showed how, by going in the opposite direction to a winning result, these three entered the pages of history and human memory in a special way. Their story is now told by many all over the world in a way that might not have happened with any other event at that series of games that year.
‘Going in the opposite direction’, the grace of the gospel often lifts up the lowly and binds up the broken hearted, and carries them forward. This kind of movement is counter cultural and provides an alternative to competition and winning in the usual sense. The real winners that day were those who crossed the finish line in the end, together. This was a win win for goodness, care and mutual brotherhood. We are reminded of the old African saying “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” Or again in the ubuntu phrase “I exist because you are”.
Or to put is another way in this morning’s reading from the first epistle to the Corinthians chapter 12:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be?As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
We are not actually islands unto ourselves, we are more like a voyagers on many catamarans, riding on waves of a vast ocean, heading into shore, influenced by the same currents.
Jesus in today’s gospel from Luke at the synagogue at Nazareth initially has the crowd with him. He has emerged from the desert having overcome the power of the devil, he has resisted and overcome the powers of darkness in the wilderness which sought to shrink his own faith. He is clear about a trust in the wide mercy of God and of his role as a suffering servant who trusts in the overcoming of shadow with light by a mysterious inner love which the world cannot give or take away. He now goes into the synagogue sure of his message and sure of the grace of God overarching everything and filling all things. He believes in the great reach of God to every human being, especially those whom others think cannot win, or are not destined for winning.
He quotes from the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
To proclaim good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom for prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free
To proclaim the year of the Lords favour”
So far so good. When Jesus says, with everyone’s eyes fixed on him “ Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”, they are amazed and speak well of him because he seems to be making this word immanent and real, here and now. But then he goes on to say, in the text immediately after our reading:
Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.
They are not expecting this at all and became furious, because it is a message which moves in a direction they do not want to go and they attempt to throw him over a cliff. What outrages them is this unlimited grace he is so sure of, which offers ever increasing circles of inclusion, way beyond the borders of race caste or creed: Elijah reaching out to a widow in Sidon, Elisha reaching out to a Syrian with the healing graces of the God of all the earth. Elijah and Elisha are going in the opposite direction to the religious instinct of their day.
Jesus is now bringing this prophetic and radical grace home again, out of compassion and solidarity with those who by virtue of their isolation and sickness, and in other ethnic groups, have been considered beyond the covenant of the God of Israel. But not by Jesus who wants to win with them, and not without them. This is a victory for our real humanity, the survival of the most cooperative, rather than the survival of the most competitive. True strength comes in great interdependence, not in lone stranger heroism. We are to be measured by the way we treat and engage with the weakest amongst us. And we are all in that category one way or another, somehow somewhere, sometime, whether it be a new-born baby, a sickness, or frailty in old age.
To act as if our strength alone is what counts and that ‘losing’ is due to a loss of an aggressive strength is a misreading of the human condition. When the militarist strong have devoured each other it will indeed be the meek who inherit the earth, if by meekness we mean a humility, a sensitivity and an openness to the deepest needs of others.
In this week of prayer for Christian unity we are called to mobilise around this mission, the mission of the messiah we have heard call us in this gospel, using the words of the prophets before him. If we link arms in the cause of righteousness and justice, in the cause for which Jesus gave his life and blood, we are going in the direction of the Kingdom of God, which is opposite to the world’s initial instincts. This means being good news for the poor, bringing freedom for prisoners, seeking the light in dark places, and struggling for liberation and freedom when oppression appears to be in control. This witnesses to the presence of God in ways that are as potent as a great prayer or an uplifting liturgy. Mission can drive ecumenism this way, so that by walking together, as Pope Francis says, we will find ourselves in the company of Christ the good shepherd and the saviour of all our souls.
This kind of walking, in this direction, will improve our talking and our sense of togetherness implicitly as we travel together, and we may find ourselves with more and more of the same story to tell about the company we keep and the mission which has challenged us, turned us around and moved us to the lost, the least and the last, which may well include ourselves for a season. Then we will be found in the company of Elijah and Elisha, of the people of the beatitudes, of the triune God. This for Jesus of Nazareth, is the starting line, the finishing line and the only true race that is set before us, and every human being in this round world. This is a world which will be moved to its core by a “don’t just tell me show me” faith in action which is good news indeed, and will bring in many years of the Lord’s favour.
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