Epiphany 4, 2016

If I were staging a modern day version of the scene we get in last week and this week’s Gospel lectionary, this is how it would go:

You are in small, dusty town, when all of a sudden you hear a loud base beat. As you look into the distance you see someone driving slowly in a convertible, one hand on the wheel. The car pulls up to the synagogue, Jesus cool as a cucumber, steps out of the car, pulls off his sunglasses, and looks slowly around his hometown. He calmly ascends the synagogue steps, unrolls a scroll of Scripture, reads it and then says those famous words that start, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. . .” When he finishes, he would drop his mic. Or the scroll, or something. The point is, it would be very cool, you guys. In modern parlance, the Jesus in this scene is very baller.

Jesus is super confident and the crowds love it! They love that this hometown boy, Joseph’s son, has gone on to do such amazing things.

Well, they love what he says until he reports that he will be doing no miracles in his hometown. Now, in the text, they don’t ask him to do miracles. He just announces he won’t do any. And then he announces that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. And then, as if to make that prophecy come true, Jesus starts throwing some serious shade.

One would think that Jesus’ friends and relatives in Nazareth would be at the heart of the gospel message. After all, wouldn’t Jesus want to share the good news and do miracles, for the people he loved the most?

Instead, Jesus tells the crowd two stories. He reminds them that Elijah did not help every person who was suffering from the famine, only a widow in Sidon. And Elisha did not help every leper, only Namaan, the Syrian.

Both the widow and Namaan are outsiders. If she is a poor widow, it means she had no family willing to take her in. And Namaan was a Syrian! He was of a different nationality. He was not part of the in crowd.

Now, this is old news to us. Jesus loves outsiders, we get it. But for those of you who were at Sunday School today, you’ll have learned that just a few hundred years before Jesus, prophets were telling the Jewish people not to marry outside of their faith, and even to expel non-Jews from Jerusalem. The prophets were concerned that non-Jews were introducing false gods and tempting Jews to worship them. They thought being insular might be a good solution. Now, we know this was not true for all of Jewish history. As Professor Adams taught us, Israel and Judah were always porous, always living amongst other nations. But, in the latter part of the New Testament, this exclusion of the other was definitely a part of the culture.

So, the good old citizens of Nazareth are deeply insulted that Jesus would rather spread his gifts around outsiders than his own community! They are so mad, they try to force him off a cliff!

Jesus, cool as ever, just walks through the crowd and on to Capernaum where he teaches and exorcises a demon.

In the Gospel of Luke, the attention and energy of God is always with those on the margins. Jesus seems to always be with the unexpected—the tax collector, the woman with a shady past, lepers, the ill. And of course, after Jesus’ death the early church went through the exciting and painful realization that Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the joy of Christian community was for everyone—including those who were not Jewish.

The Jesus of Luke’s gospel really challenges us who in some ways are in the position of the good people of Nazareth. We are the respectable ones now, with a long tradition of following God. We Episcopalians are so proud of our apostolic tradition, in which we can trace our Bishops all the way back to Peter.

What would it look like for us to keep our eyes open for where God is working in the margins?

Have you heard of the Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards? I have no idea what his religious background is, but he is a environmental engineering professor. A decade ago, he uncovered contaminated water in Washington DC and fought the CDC for years until they acknowledged that yes, the city’s pipes were deteriorating and DC residents were being poisoned by the water. Well, a resident of Flint, Michigan named Leanne Walters read about him, contacted him and mailed him samples of the local water to test. She had previously sent samples to the EPA, which claimed the water was safe. The local government also repeatedly told residents the water was safe to drink. But these residents could observe their children’s hair falling out and knew things were not right. It was professor Edwards’ who discovered that the levels of lead in Flint, Michigan were shockingly high. One glass of the water was enough to poison a child and children had been drinking the water for two years. Now, at this point, professor Edwards, who had already been financially strapped and slandered by many during his years long fight with Washington, DC officials could have let the people of Flint handle the rest of the fight on their own. The Washington Post reports that he shared his findings with the EPA, who ignored him. He then pulled a team at VA Tech together who filed Freedom of Information Act requests to prove that the local governments and EPA knew about the conditions of the water in Flint. He has gone through $150,000 of his research and personal funds to fight for the people of Flint, Michigan.

His courage motivated Dr. Mona Hatta-Attis, a Michigan pediatrician and daughter of Iraqi immigrants, to start testing her patients. The levels of lead she found in her patients had doubled and even tripled since the source of the water had been changed. She continued to press this point, even after local city officials and media accused her of being hysterical. Dr. Edwards had an ally inside the EPA, as well, Miguel Del Toral, who released internal memos a year ago arguing the water of Flint was unsafe. His boss suppressed his findings. Working together, these four people–fought and fought and fought until public attention was brought to the problem.

Dr. Edwards so won the trust of the people of Flint that they insisted he be in charge of restoring their water systems He agreed.

I think Ms. Walters, Dr. Edwards, Dr. Hatta-Attis and Mr. Del Toral are living examples of what it means to be in the world like Jesus was in the world. In their case, the outsiders they cared about were the children of Flint, Michigan.  They stayed calm under pressure and continue to speak their truths even when faced with enormous opposition. They knew that these children, who have no money, no prestige, no power were important enough to protect.

Now, not very many of us are going to ever be in the position to be a hero under these kind of circumstances. But fifty of you, FIFTY, participated in some way in our PACEM ministry to homeless women this week. Fifty of you donated your resources or time or presence to give women a nurturing environment instead of a cold night on the streets.

And each of us has the opportunity in our daily lives to listen to the stories of people who are different than we are. We have the ability to grow in our understanding of what life is like for people beyond Albemarle County, or what life is like in the corners of our county that don’t usually get attention. We have the ability to reach out and make connections with people in our neighborhoods and offices and classrooms. When we follow Jesus, we never know where we will land! May God give us the privilege of joining him on the margins and seeing him at work. Amen.

To donate to the Flint Water Study or for clean water for Flint residents, go here.