John Mark Elliott, Middle School Chaplain & Religion Instructor, addressed the members and guests of Christ Church Episcopal during the annual Episcopal Schools Sunday service on January 30th. Below are his complete remarks from the service.
Grace and peace to you in the name of God’s beloved whose heart beats even now in this church, in our school, and in you.
May God shape and mend these words into a blessing.
Episcopal School Sunday is a homecoming. An annual reminder of the formative relationship between CCES and you, our parent church. It’s a homecoming that buttresses our memory of who we are and where we started. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus, too, experiences a homecoming. And both of these things have me thinking about my own experience of coming home.
It’s a beautiful thing. Returning to a place and community that at one point knew you before you knew yourself. A place that at once shaped your identity and planted the seeds of your intellectual, moral, and theological imagination. I love going home. Eating meals that taste like home. Reconnecting with friends and family who remind you that home feels like mama’s bear hug or a conversation with a high school buddy sprinkled with resurrected jokes from who knows how many years ago. But for me, the beauty of coming home is accompanied sometimes by a feeling of displacement. And that’s because people, places, and communities change. The person my hometown remembers me as, doesn’t always match the person I’ve become.
To this day I have aunts and uncles who declare with equal surprise every Thanksgiving or Christmas: “This boy is still growing like a weed. What are they feeding him?” This despite me maintaining a 6’2” frame for over a decade. It’s as if their memory of the scrawny little dude who struggled to complete more than 3 pull ups in high school is a living, fixed reality. Or I think about my relationship with my parents. I’m firmly situated in what society describes as adulthood, yet we sometimes still revert back to our child/adult dynamic. To this day my mom reminds me that “I’ll always be her baby.” I recognize that there is truth there. However, my mom understandably can’t help but see me (at least in part) as someone I don’t even remember - the toddler who she potty trained, the kid who cried over failing a Spanish exam, the college student who needed help editing his term paper at midnight. Who I am now doesn’t always align with who she remembers me to be.
These are just a couple examples of expectations from home not matching the reality of the home-goer.
Jesus experienced a homecoming in Nazareth, the place where he learned to walk and read, where he grew up. After his baptism and subsequent 40-day journey into the desert, Jesus began his preaching ministry with an inaugural address in his home synagogue. He pulls out the Torah and preaches from a text that he no doubt knew was money. A passage from the prophet Isaiah and not just any passage, but a jubilee passage – a passage that is the sum of Israel’s hope, a passage that declares God’s favor on Israel. And the crowd ate it up. The gospel says they were “amazed.” Someone even said, “Ain’t this Joseph’s boy?” Oh yea. Jesus was on the cusp of being the hometown hero. They laid claim to him like Myrtle Beach claims Vanna White or Cleveland claims Lebron (or did). This was a homecoming we dream of.
But things devolve quickly. Within the span of a few sentences, the crowds’ response to Jesus transforms from awe into rage, from admiration into fury. Talk about a 180. What happened here?
Jesus reminded the crowd about two related stories: Israel was starving amidst a famine, and there were a bunch of widows in Israel, yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow in Sidon. There were also a bunch of lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
Why did these stories inspire such hostility? On the surface, the crowd’s reaction to this seems rather unhinged and dramatic. But on closer examination, we see here that Jesus basically shows them, reveals to them in Epiphany fashion, what God is up to: God’s blessing bypassed Israel in those stories and was gifted to outsiders - even enemies of Israel. The widow Elijah helped? A Gentile, a foreigner. Naaman the Syrian who Elisha healed of leprosy? A leader of the people who oppressed Israel. This was an explosive message: Jesus subverted their expectations of God and asked them to reimagine who God chooses to bless. This Jesus is not the Jesus they expected “Joseph's son” to be. It was enough to send them into a murderous rage.
It was a homecoming gone sour because Jesus proclaimed that God’s liberating power and solidarity was not exclusively meant for the benefit of Abraham’s descendants, or just the people of the exodus and the great prophets. God’s mission has a universal scope – transcending all ethnic, cultural, social, racial or confessional barriers. Jesus revealed that God was doing a new thing. Those who Israel thought should have been cursed were recipients of the blessing too. And that meant that they were linked together with Israel.
The crowd could not compute. They were shaken by the paradigm shift. This group of Israelites had a scarcity mentality. If God blesses them, that means there is less blessing for us. But God’s math works differently. Blessing isn’t a limited resource in God’s economy.
God is the one who gives blessing. We don’t earn it. Sometimes I get conned into doing faulty math: more prayer leads to more blessing. Giving more leads to more blessing. But it doesn’t always add up. We can’t manipulate God into giving us blessings by doing those things. But prayer, giving, and the like aren’t useless, far from it. They help give us eyes to see and clear our vision to recognize the blessings we’ve been given.
To bust another blessing myth, we should also note that blessing isn’t a reward or a sign of special status, a measure of God’s providence toward us. There’s a temptation to equate blessings with prosperity, health, and abundance. I call that what historian Kate Bowler calls the #blessed phenomenon. There was a trend where you’d post a pic of yourself of vacation sipping a pina colada or in front of a new house you just moved into and the caption would read #blessed. Given the benefit of the doubt, I understand the intent: All good gifts are from God. But this notion holds an insidious corollary: that those who are not prosperous, those who are sick, those whom misfortune has visited - these have not received the blessing of God. Jesus reminds the crowd here that blessing often works in mysterious ways. God is using a different mathematical algorithm or formula. We’re doing long-division. He’s over there doing calculus. And God’s blessings typically find us in our greatest need or lack. Think beatitudes: Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who mourn.
At Christ Church we are blessed. We are no more blessed than anyone else. But I particularly appreciate how our school strives to recognize and receive the blessing. At Christ Church, we actively seek to resist scarcity math and #blessed theology by naming and proclaiming ad nauseum the call from our baptismal covenant to love your neighbor as yourself and to respect the dignity of every human being. We are blessed not because we’ve incurred God’s favor. We are blessed because God has gifted us his presence and called us to participate in that blessing by stewarding it in each other and in ourselves.
I palpably see and experience God’s blessing at our school in numerous ways: when CCES graduates and alumni return to say hello in class or at a practice. We hug and catch up and thank each other for having graced each other’s lives. These mini homecomings open my eyes to what Jesus was telling the crowd: Those who God has blessed often become the blessing. It’s the nature of blessing to spill out, to overflow, to be given away. And another experience that feels chock full of blessing has been a tradition that continues to bind church to school: the Eucharist. The table has and will continue to serve as a weekly homecoming of sorts. The bread and wine are an open invitation to receive a blessing from God in community. And of course, this homecoming foreshadows the greater, final homecoming. A homecoming where the table is wide enough for everyone, where we are so stuffed with blessings and so delighted to dish them around family style that we don’t know what to do with the abundance. It’s a homecoming where no one feels displaced. Where belonging is no longer a desire, but a reality. This is the mission of CCES. May we Christ Church downtown and Christ Church Episcopal school seek to fulfill that mission and be a place of homecoming where those who receive blessing become the blessing.
And now I can think of no better way than to close with blessing. This one is written by author and minister, Jan Richardson. May we have ears to hear:
And the table will be wide.
And the welcome will be wide.
And the arms will open wide to gather us in.
And our hearts will open wide to receive.
And we will come as children who trust there is enough.
And we will come unhindered and free.
And our aching will be met with bread.
And our sorrow will be met with wine.
And we will open our hands to the feast without shame.
And we will turn toward each other without fear.
And we will give up our appetite for despair.
And we will taste and know of delight.
And we will become bread for a hungering world.
And we will become drink for those who thirst.
And the blessed will become the blessing.
And everywhere will be the feast.Click here to view a pre-recorded video of the sermon.