Pr. Ben Adams
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
February 2, 2018
When I was in my sophomore high school, my Dad gave me a hunting rifle for Christmas. It was a Remington 270 Winchester with some beautiful engraving on the stock, a custom leather sling, and a powerful scope to aim with. Little did my Dad know at that time but after moving away to college and going to seminary I would eventually become a vegetarian and not make it home anymore each year for opening day of hunting season. If he could have foreseen that transformation he may have just used the gun for himself knowing one day that the luster of this rifle would be lost on me.
But me receiving a gun for Christmas that I would someday not use is not the point of telling this story, it’s how my Dad got this gun that is. And this took place just a few months before that Christmas my sophomore year. My Dad was with his buddies up in a town called Honor, Michigan for deer camp that year, and after the first day of hunting that year my Dad got pretty sick. While his hunting buddies went into town that night to have a burger and a beer at the local bar, my Dad opted to stay back.
But eventually my Dad got too hungry to be able to sleep so he thought he’d head into town himself for a bite. When he got to the bar, even before he ordered his food, his friends encouraged him to put his name in for the gun raffle that the bar was holding. So my Dad goes to the bar and asks the bartender if he can purchase a raffle ticket, and the bartender tells him that sales for raffle tickets ended five minutes ago. But after giving it a second thought, the bartender decides to make an exception and takes my Dad’s $5 bucks and puts his name in the hopper.
Now I think it’s important at this point to note that in the town of Honor, Michigan, this gun raffle is one of the biggest events of the year. People buy hundreds of dollars worth of raffle tickets in hopes of winning the prized rifle, and sales for the raffle tickets take place for months before the raffle. And there’s my Dad, five minutes late to the raffle, and somehow the bartender finds it in their heart to show a bit of grace to this out of towner an accepts his late entry.
So it comes time for the raffle, and when they announce my Dad’s name you can feel the tension in the room. Who is this guy? Cy Who? Cy Adams? Some out of towner walks in here and wins our beloved raffle? Now my Dad’s friend Chuck who had a few too many beers at this point decides to stir the pot even more and announce that my Dad bought his raffle ticket five minutes after sales had closed.
At that point people aren’t just feeling tension because an outsider came in and won their raffle, they are angry that somehow this out of towner bought his ticket late and his name was probably right at the top. And the anger in the bar reaches the point to where my Dad felt scared for his safety and took the certificate to pick up the gun at the local gun store and got the heck out of there.
It was a moment of grace for an outsider that lead to the crowd in that bar to become so filled with rage that my Dad felt fear for his life.
I was reminded of this story as I read our Gospel this morning. A Gospel story where Jesus is almost hurled from a cliff by people from his hometown! And Jesus enrages the crowd by speaking words of prophetic grace for outsiders. Jesus says to this crowd in his hometown that despite their being many widows in the time of Elijah, Elijah was sent to none of them except to an outsider widow at Zarephath in Sidon, and in the time of Elisha, there were many lepers but none of them were cleansed except an outsider nameed Naaman the Syrian. The grace that Jesus speaks of here is one that transgresses our line of who is in and who is out. And the privileged insiders are pierced by these words of grace.
Jesus’s words of prophetic grace to outsiders are sharp and a direct piercing through the privilege of an insider hometown group of people. These same words of prophetic grace for the outsider are the same words that the Lord puts in the mouth of Jeremiah in our first reading.
But there is another reminder this morning from Paul in First Corinthians, that we must speak these prophetic, grace filled words with love. He says, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Now speaking prophetic words of grace for outsiders, even when spoken with love, does not protect us from rejection, but we can hold fast to the hope of the resurrection, because the scene in our Gospel where Jesus is rejected by those in his hometown and on the edge of death almost being hurled off a cliff, he passes through the crowd. It’s a true resurrection story where Jesus is brought back from what seemed like a clear and certain death. And this word, passes, in the Greek is more akin to piercing through the crowd like a sword.
When we preach prophetic grace like Jesus we are certain to meet a fate like his, but when the forces of death seem to have overpowered and overtaken us, Jesus’ resurrection power pierces through those deathly forces making a way for us to move forward where there was no way.
This month begins black history month and one cannot mention speaking with prophetic grace for outsiders without bringing up Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. He was one who pierced through our society with his words of prophetic grace denouncing a system that would privilege an insider group because of the color of their skin. And because King’s words and actions pierced through the white privilege of the insiders, King faced ultimate rejection to the point that he was killed for his prophetic message.
But King’s legacy lives on because of the way that he faced the enraged crowds and yet passed through that hatred and anger on his way forward to the promised land. One preaching professor from Boston University said this about King, “You’ve probably heard that the great preacher and activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was frequently fond of paraphrasing Reverend Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”2 The way King uses it, of course, is not for the sake of resignation, as if we could sit back and let historical determinism have its way. It is, however, from King’s prophetic mouth a balm to those in the struggle. For all the difficulties of preaching prophetic grace, it bespeaks a purpose larger than our own, one capable of passing through rejection and still being on its way.”
Jesus’s words, King’s words, our words of prophetic grace for the outsider even when spoken in love will invite rejection and rage, but do not let that deter you dear people. We might return to our hometowns different people than when we left and they might not accept us, but don’t make yourself to fit others expectations. In your words and actions let God’s prophetic grace for the outsider be in your mouth, and just when you think there is no way forward trust even more boldly in the power and hope of the resurrection that brings us back from the edge of the cliff, back from the grip of death.
My Dad will never forget that harrowing night in Honor, Michigan when he won that rifle, and I will never shoot that gun again, but coming back home a different person than when I left was how I became who I am today, and my Dad experiencing that bit of grace as an outsider by the bartender despite the rage from the towns folk that he faced, that grace will never be forgotten. Amen