The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Nehemiah 8.1-3,5-6,8-10; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21
So which part of yourself are you not so keen on? Which part of you would you change or get rid of if you had half a chance and twice the money? Your nose – too long? Your hair – too sparse? Your lips – too thin? Your ears – too prominent? Your legs – too short? Your feet – too big?
In Dylan Thomas’s great play for voices ‘Under Milk Wood’, Lily Smalls stands in the morning in front of the mirror and looks at herself.
Oh there's a face!
Where you get that hair from?
Got it from a old tom cat.
Give it back then, love.
Oh there's a perm!
Where you get that nose from, Lily?
Got it from my father, silly.
You've got it on upside down!
Oh there's a conk!
Look at your complexion!
Oh no, you look.
Needs a bit of make-up.
Needs a veil.
Oh there's glamour!
But we know that short of surgery or a transplant there’s nothing that you can do and you can’t exist without all your bits and pieces – or at least most of them – and so you just have to get on with it.
St Paul is talking about something similar in the Second Reading for this Eucharist. Paul sets up this little scenario in which the body is addressing different parts of itself
‘The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’’’
It’s an amusing idea, that we should try to get rid of one bit of our self – either because we don’t like it or don’t value it or simply don’t want it. God hasn’t made the body like this says St Paul, it’s not how the body works. In fact the body has been created so that the differences work together in a harmonious whole. The point is that so should the church in Corinth, the point is that so should the church as a whole, the point is that so should society as a whole.
In this season of Epiphany, of which this is the last Sunday, we’ve been looking at the ways in which Jesus is manifested to the people after his birth, the ways in which Jesus is made known, revealed as the person he is, revealed as the God he is. So in the visit of the wise men with their symbolic gifts, in the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, in the wedding at Cana in Galilee, we encounter in Jesus prophet, priest and king supreme, God among us, Son of God and God incarnate. And on this Sunday, as part of this process of epiphany, of manifestation, we’re taken into the synagogue in Nazareth.
This was at the very beginning of his public ministry when Jesus is basically setting out his stall. The synagogue where he was must have been the one in which he’d been worshipping God all his life, the place where he worshipped with his father, the place to which his mother Mary had brought him.
Everyone knew him as the Son of the Carpenter but as he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah there’s an epiphany of the nature of the ministry to which Jesus knows himself to be called.
The passage he finds is one of those in which the prophet begins to paint a picture of the kingdom of God and the citizens of the kingdom. And those whom he says will be part of that kingdom are those who for many in the Jewish culture were at the bottom of the pile. The prophet speaks of the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed and by reading this passage we understand that the work that Jesus himself feels himself called to do is about release, recovery and freedom. They’re fantastic words with which to begin a ministry – release, recovery, freedom – genuine good news that Jesus as the anointed one, the Christ, is sent, spirit-filled, to bring.
And people were furious. The passage ends too soon because just a few verses further on, after Jesus had said more to them, their reaction changes. Initially, after Jesus has read from the scroll, Luke says ‘and they all spoke well of him.’ But after Jesus has explained the implications of this scripture they were ‘filled with rage’.
‘They got up, drove him out of the town,’ says Luke ‘and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.’
They didn’t want him; they could do without him. His words had challenged them too much; his good news was not good news for them.
‘The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’’
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. We stand this year at the brink of the beginning of the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and it seems beyond our imagining that six million Jews were exterminated during that conflict in a deliberate act of genocide by the Nazis. I went to Auschwitz a few years ago and was so moved to be in the place which I’d heard so much about. I recognised it as though I’d been there – but I hadn’t, only in my mind as I watched the old news footage. And apart from the general feel of the place, the terror of the place, I suppose the thing that chilled me to the bone was the level of organization that lay behind the killing. This was the industrialisation of annihilation. It was like a huge factory for extermination and that struck me so profoundly.
How could people have decided that the Jews were not wanted, that they could cut them off, like the body cutting off the hand, like the body cutting off a limb? How could we imagine that we don’t need our brothers and sisters who are difficult, or imperfect, or not like us? How could we imagine that we want to rid ourselves of that which we’ve decided we no longer require?
And there’s no room for us to simply point at the world on a day like this and say how bad other people are. We’re as bad in the church. The people in the synagogue wanted to be rid of Jesus and throw him off the cliff. We decide that women, or gay people, or black people, or transgender people are a problem in the church? We can too easily create communities that speak of exclusion rather than inclusion, people not like us wander into our churches and wander out again and it’s easier for us that way.
But the dimension of epiphany which we celebrate today is that Jesus brings good news for each one of us.
Lily Smalls, looking at her face, in the end knows that though her hair, her nose, her complexion may not be as she’d have wanted they make her her and that despite all the things she doesn’t like she’s loved as a person, as a whole person.
Where you get that smile,
Lil? Never you mind, girl.
Nobody loves you.
That's what you think.
Who is it loves you?
Come on, Lily.
Cross your heart then?
Cross my heart.
God’s wonderful creation is made perfect in its intricate diversity and into that diversity even you fit, even we fit, the people to whom Jesus comes with the promise of release, recovery and freedom – this is the final statement about epiphany in this season, this is the divine revelation that we celebrate as we come to this table to be fed by God and just as the people in the square before the Water Gate in our First Reading were reduced to tears, so beautiful was God’s word to them, so should it be to us.
We may not be perfect people, we may not be everything that’s good, but it’s to you and me that Jesus comes with good news and living bread. And he brings the same good news and the same bread of life to those we find most difficult and could do without. Disturbing isn’t it! Well it should be, as disturbing as if your hand said to your foot I don’t need you.