Sexagesima Sunday: Preparing to Prepare

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany (Sexagesima)
“Preparing to Prepare” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Jeremiah 1.4-10
Psalm 71.1-17
1 Corinthians 14.4-10
Luke 4.21-32

+ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday and today we are studying a single story in St. Luke’s gospel, one single “pericope.” Pericope is a fancy Greek word that means “to cut around,” [peri– (around) + kope (cut)], and it just means a block of text that forms a single literary unit, a story you can cut and lift from off the page to study by itself. So, in this single pericope in Luke 4: Jesus is home, back in Galilee where he grew up. Last Sunday saw Jesus in the synagogue teaching from the prophet Isaiah — someday, the dream had always been, a messiah would come and proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and Jesus said: “Today, right before your eyes, that dream is coming true.” And they marveled. Everyone spoke well of him, Luke says.

But the story didn’t stop — today come the inevitable questions of Jesus’ credentials: “This kid’s a townie! We know where he lives. Who ever saw him at the rabbi school?” They can’t see Jesus for who he really is. And in just two sentences, the crowd lurches from speaking well of Jesus to trying to kill him. Two sentences. Today I want to look at those two sentences and at two dramatic shifts — (1) From marveling to murder; and (2) from a feast to a fast.

First: From Marveling to Murder
The shift occurs between verse 22, “all spoke well of him and marveled at [his] words,” and verse 29, “they brought him to the brow of a hill . . . so they could throw him down the cliff.” Seven verses to go from marveling to murder. Why? What did Jesus say that infuriated them so?

It’s in the two sentences — and two stories. First, Elijah — one of the most famous miracle-workers in the OT. Everybody knew about his exploits, and one is recorded in 1 Kings 17. God told Elijah a terrible drought would come on Israel — no rain for 3 years. When the rivers dried up, God sent Elijah north, out of Israel to a foreign land, where a widow would give him water and food. Keep that in mind for a second — God sends Elijah to a foreigner for help.

Story two: Elisha — Elijah’s protege and successor, a great wonder-worker and mighty prophet in his own right. In 2 Kings 5, a man named Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, came to Israel for a cure for his leprosy. Elisha told Naaman to go wash in the Jordan river 7 times, and although he resisted this rather unorthodox prescription at first, Naaman did go to the Jordan, he did wash 7 times, and “he was clean.” (2 Kings 5.14)

Now — What about those two stories swung the crowd from marveling to murder? N. T. Wright, in his little commentary on Luke, puts it this way:

What was so wrong with what [Jesus] was saying . . . ? Elijah was sent to help a widow — but not a Jewish one. Elisha healed one solitary leper — and the leper was the commander of the enemy army. That’s what did it. That’s what drove them to fury. Israel’s God was rescuing the wrong people.

They tried to throw him off a cliff because he dared to point out that God wasn’t always on their side! We hate that. Jesus overruns our banks, seeps into places we don’t want him to go, and it makes us incredibly uncomfortable. Between Mississippi and Washington, DC and here, I’ve been in all kinds of churches. I’ve been in churches that thought “gay Christian” was a contradiction in terms. And I’ve been in churches where God’s grace goes to everybody, except maybe Hitler. Or Sarah Palin. But Jesus has a knack for eluding us all. We think we have him figured — our friends are his friends, our enemies his enemies — we have him pinned down, but “passing through our midst, he goes away.”

Here’s my point: The idea for this sermon came last week when I re-watched a movie called Calvary. Seen it? You should. It opens with a quote attributed to St. Augustine (maybe it was — if it wasn’t Augustine, it should’ve been):

Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.

Never presume. In a space as narrow as a single human encounter, or as vast as the Anglican Communion — we do well not to presume to know the boundaries of God’s grace. God always seems to be rescuing the wrong people.

Second shift: From a feast to a fast
Why do you think St. Luke put this story here, right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry? The other gospels put it much later, but Luke tacks it on right after Jesus’ baptism and temptation. I think Luke puts it here because it’s a key — this story is Jesus’ whole ministry in a microcosm. The shift from accolades to accusations plays out again and again, most memorably between Palm Sunday (when people shout Jesus’ praises) and Good Friday (when they clamor for his death). Luke puts the story here because even from the hill in Galilee they tried to throw him from, Jesus saw another hill. Calvary, where the cross was already casting its shadow.

Lenten-Diagram-from-My-Book-of-the-Churchs-Year-by-Enid-M.-Chadwick-01A shadow looms ahead of us, as well. We’re about to shift from a feast to a fast. We feasted at Christmas and in the brightness of Epiphanytide, but darkness is gathering. In just 10 days, we receive ashes and Lent begins.

Why mention that now? How many of you remember the name Juma Ikangaa? Not sure I’m saying it right, but between 1988 and 1990 a Tanzanian man named Juma Ikangaa ran the Boston Marathon, and he finished second all three times. Of course, he became a sentimental favorite around here — we were used to finishing second, and we like scrappy underdogs. He never won Boston, but we remember him for a famous quote: “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.”

To borrow Juma’s words: The will to keep Lent means nothing without the will to prepare now, so the church traditionally kept something called “pre-Lent.” In the western church it was the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday where the readings focused on penance, devotion, atonement. The Gloria was omitted at mass; purple vestments appeared. Those were the “Gesimas” — Septuagesima (“seventieth”), Sexagesima (“sixtieth”), and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”). Page 8 of the bulletin explains more of what those words mean, and it tells us today is the middle Sunday — Sexagesima. Anyway, the church kept these days because the shift from feasting at Christmas to fasting in Lent is such a shock to the system. Fr. Schmemann says:

Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening “worldliness” of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another. Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its significance.

That’s why we still call today Sexagesima here at the Advent, why the bulletin says “Prepare to prepare.” We can’t keep Lent, can’t really keep Lent, unless we prepare. So here’s an assignment: Start thinking about Lent today. What is God calling you to do this year, to give up or take on, to make room for God in your life?

  • Maybe keep the corporate disciplines we do as a parish — Fr. Warren hopes to have the booklets ready by next Sunday
  • Or read a book — Ask for a book suggestion, or go online to find something. Just don’t wait until Mardi Gras to order it!
  • Take your calendar and carve out a time each day to sit and listen to God’s voice.
  • Plan to pray the Rosary with us on Thursdays or Fridays before mass
  • Sit in on the parish Bible study on Wednesday mornings or the Christian Basics class on Wednesday nights
  • Serve at the Tuesday Night Supper

Whatever God leads you to do, the shift from a feast to a fast is closer than you think. The cross is casting its shadow. The church says: Get ready.

One last point (I promise it’s short): If I’m not mistaken, we just finished breaking all our New Years Resolutions about 15 minutes ago. You know you did. I certainly did. And now we’re resolving again for Lent. What’s “gospel” about that? Just this: St. John said Jesus “came to his own, and his own received him not” — they broke all their promises, betrayed him at every turn — but, John says, but “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1.12-13) Thank God we don’t have to will ourselves into God’s family. None of us could. But God. His will is what carries the day. Lent can pry open our hearts just a little to let more of God in. Prepare now.

Prepare to work like it all depends on you.

But believe like it all depends on God.

Because it does.

+ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

{Audio of this sermon is available at http://bit.ly/1Txy2be}