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Not Special, But Loved

[For an audio file of this sermon, click here]

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child…” This week’s gospel lesson has me thinking about one particular conversation I had as a child – if 19 still counts as childhood (In my case, I think it did). It was a conversation with my Dad, and we were talking about me – because, I was 19. Specifically, we were talking about something I was struggling with in my faith.

I remember telling my Dad: “I know Jesus loves me, but Jesus loves everybody. So, if you think about it, there’s nothing that special about Jesus loving me. What makes me special?”

Looking back now, I want to pull that younger version of myself close, and stroke her hair and say “O Sweetie, I’m so glad those are the things that you worry about at 19.” But all the same, I know it’s the wrong question. Being “special” is not what following Jesus is about.

Of course, that’s at least part of Paul’s point in alluding to his own childish thinking. Self-focused concerns are not of love, and they are childish. They are something we need to grow out of if we want to embody love.

Unfortunately, chronological years don’t guarantee that people mature out of that kind of childish thinking. We have a disturbing example of such a failure to mature in today’s gospel story – which is what triggered my memory of my own “childish thoughts.” In today’s gospel, the people of Jesus’ hometown also want to be “special” to Jesus. That might not be obvious from an initial read, so let me share the way that Lukan scholar Robert Tannehill explains what is going on in this story:

“The people ask, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ (vs. 22). This question should be understood in connection with verse 23, which refers to what Jesus should do in his hometown. Thus, the question is not intended to denigrate Jesus but to point out that he is a hometown boy. According to the culture, this involves obligations. One must give preference to one’s own family and village…. (there is an expectation of ) ‘in-group’ loyalty in Mediterranean society.”[1] (emphasis added).

In other words, when the people ask “is not this Joseph’s son?” they are saying: “He belongs to us. If he speaks with gracious words, then we share some of that glory. If he performs deeds of power elsewhere, then we should get even more.”

They want to be special. More specifically, they want an assurance of special treatment because of “in-group loyalty.”

But Jesus will have none of it. In-group loyalty is not God’s way, and they shouldn’t expect it to be. Jesus reminds the people of the history of their own great prophets who also denied the “hometown obligation.” When there was a severe famine in Israel, Elijah was sent to help not the widows in Israel but a widow at Zarephath. And the leper Elisha healed was a Syrian general.

To quote Robert Tannehill again:

“A prophet is not going to be pleasing in his hometown, for a prophet is not governed by in-group loyalties. Jesus … is governed by the purpose of God and the precedent of scriptural prophets. Therefore, his ministry will focus not on the in-group but on the excluded. Those who cannot accept this priority will find the prophet unacceptable.”[2]

And that’s just how the people of Jesus’ hometown do react. They find his rejection of their assumed privilege unacceptable. So unacceptable that they try to throw him off a cliff! Challenging in-group loyalty is a sure-fire way to get people angry!

It’s just as true now. Just look at the current patterns of American political debate, especially whenever criticism is getting handed out. Most of us rush to the defense of anyone who lines up with our in-group, while we rush to judgement against any person that is associated with which ever group is "out" to us. We don’t have to ask questions, or investigate the facts, or look for nuance. We already know our sides. Our loyalties are bound up with our very identities. And this group loyalty cuts us off from discernment, and from the possibility of hearing a challenge we might need – because a challenge to our loyalty is a challenge to our identity.

There was plenty of room for some self-reflection on all sides last month after the confrontation between Covington High School students, the protest group, and the Native American marchers. But instead of listening, instead of learning, defensiveness and accusation ruled the public conversation. Group loyalty was the priority, not change that would benefit the whole.

None of us like to have our assumed superiority challenged, but the problem is that if we can’t put up with that challenge, then we are going to end up in the crowd trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. Because Jesus doesn’t do in-groups. As commentator Debie Thomas paraphrases Jesus’ sermon:

“You can’t hunker down and stay where you are, expecting God to hang out with you. God is on the move. God is doing a new thing. God is speaking in places you don’t recognize as sacred, privileging voices you’re not interested in hearing, and saying things that will make your ears burn. Can you handle it? God is not yours. You are God’s.”[3]

We belong to God. That’s the only loyalty that is supposed to rule our lives: Loyalty to God. Commitment to what God is doing in the world, regardless of who it benefits, or which of our cherished, “special” identities it challenges.

Because we will be challenged if we are really listening to what Jesus has to say. The Jesus of the gospels is not safe. He will offend us. Debie Thomas asks the question:

“When was the last time Jesus made you… angry? When was the last time he touched whatever it is you call holy – your conservatism, your progressivism, your theology, your denomination, your Biblical literacy, your prayer life, your politics, your wokeness – and asked you to look beyond it to find him?” [4]

Our faith is not about us and the way we define ourselves! It’s about Jesus! That’s why he makes people angry. That’s why they want to throw him off cliffs, and hang him on a cross. Because he tells them, he tells us – “my mission is NOT about making you special. It’s about the work for which the Spirit of the Lord has anointed me.”

He told us about that mission in the sermon we read in the gospel last week: to preach good news to the poor, and proclaim release, and recovery of sight, and liberation, and the year of Jubilee – even for the people in the out-group… even for the people we don’t think deserve it.

The good news is that we get to be part of that mission. The bad news, at least at first, is that we have to let go of our wish to be “special.” The wish to have an in-group identity that reassures us of our value by telling us that we are in some way better, or more valuable, or have some prior claim over those who aren’t part of the in-group.

But actually, I have come to believe that is part of the good news. Because that means that our value is not really about us at all – and that means there’s nothing we can do to lose it. We are most whole, most filled with the joy for which we were created when we can let go of our need to be set-apart and rest in the unearned loved of God.

St. Teresa of Avila experienced the joy of finding her wholeness in union with God. At the beginning of one of her poems she writes:

“I found completeness

when each breath began to silently say the name

of my Lord.”[4]

I have come to understand – after many years – that this completeness is what my Dad was trying to explain to me all those years ago when I shared my teen-aged angst about God’s love not translating into my specialness.

He told me. “You don’t have to be special to be precious. Life isn’t a zero-sum game where we all have to compete for a finite amount of value. God loves you. Specifically you! God’s love for other people doesn’t have anything to do with the power of God’s love for you. It’s the truth of God’s love that matters.”

We aren’t special. There are no in-groups. And following Jesus means we better be willing to let go of any claims to privilege, so that we can get along with the work of his mission.

We aren’t special. But we are LOVED. By God. And even more than faith or hope, “the greatest of these is love." (1 Cor. 13:13)

Thanks be to God.

[1] Robert C. Tannehill, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 93.

[2] Ibid, pp. 93-94.


[4] From St. Teresa’s poem “Every Prophet’s Name,” published in Love Poems from God, Ed. Daniel Ladinsky, New York: Penguin Compass, 2002, p. 272

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