Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2010
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.
One you get a few paragraphs deep into The Catcher in the Rye,
the classic 1951 novel by J.D. Salinger, who died this past week.
it becomes painfully clear that there's something wrong with Holden Caulfield.
He's angry, depressed, scattered, desperate … yet, and perhaps not surprisingly,
he shows glimpses of deep insight, as is often the case with those who are marginalized.
He longs for something real, something authentic, something worth holding on to …
but this yearning for authenticity contrasts with the phoniness that surrounds him.
You see, Holden Caulfield looks at the world and at those around him
with a deep skepticism and cynicism,
acutely diagnosing the phoniness of the people and places around him.
Though most of us might not share his quirks or crude language,
and though we may not relate to his deep carelessness,
there is something about his analysis of the phoniness of the world
that has struck a chord for generations of Americans.
One of Holden's first references to things "phony" appears just 14 pages into the book,
when he describes the headmaster at his former boarding school, Elkton Hills.
"One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills," he says,
"was because I was surrounded by phonies.
For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas,
that was the phoniest [man] I ever met in my life.
On Sundays, for instance, old Haas went around shaking hands
with everybody's parents when they drove up to school.
He'd be charming as [heck] and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents.
I mean if a boy's mother was sort of … corny-looking or something
and if somebody's father was one of those guys that wear those suits with very big shoulders
and corny black-and-white shoes,
then old Haas would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile
and then he'd go talk, for maybe a half an hour, with somebody else's parents.
I can't stand that stuff. It drives me crazy." (The Catcher in the Rye, pg 14)
All kinds of people drove Holden Caulfield crazy.
He saw the phoniness in just about anybody –
the prep school kids who spoke in highfalutin' tones during Broadway show intermissions,
the smooth-talking guy at the bar trying to get a date,
and even the ministers who preached at the various boarding schools he had attended:
"If you want to know the truth, I can't even stand ministers," he says.
"They all have these Holy Joe voices when they start giving their sermons …
I don't see why the [heck] they can't talk in their natural voice.
They sound so phony when they talk." (pg 100).
Holden Caulfield, the angst-ridden and terribly flawed commentator on all things phony,
became a sort of American prophet calling out our phoniness
while broadcasting our seemingly contradictory yearning for authenticity.
Though he admitted that he was probably an atheist, Caulfield said that he liked Jesus.
I imagine that Jesus would've liked Caulfield, too.
You see, we can certainly describe part of Jesus' ministry
as one of calling out all the phonies of his day –
the religious leaders and super-pious types
who thought they had a corner on the market of righteousness,
the proud, the rich, the influential, and even his own hand-picked disciples,
who often took their God, their status, their fellow human beings for granted.
Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of these people, compared them to none other than the devil,
and told clever tales subtly revealing their wickedness.
Like Holden Caulfield who blasted the phonies who populated his life,
Jesus often cast a harsh light on the religious phonies of his day,
those who would misuse religious teachings in willful neglect of the lowly
and shameful disregard for the grace of God.
Today's Gospel reading from the 4th chapter of Luke
is the first time that we see Jesus pulling a Holden Caulfield,
calling out the phoniness of those around him.
It's an odd story, today's Gospel is.
In the preceding verses, from last week's Gospel,
Jesus comes to Nazareth, the town of his upbringing,
goes to the synagogue where he is given a scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah,
announcing the year of the Lord's favor –
release to the captives,
sight to the blind,
freedom for the oppressed,
good news for the poor.
And then he rolls up the scroll and sits down.
That's where today's Gospel text picks up.
Jesus sits down and announces that this scripture,
announcing the year of the Lord's favor
and all its wonderful good news for the lowly,
has been fulfilled in their hearing.
The crowd – his hometown crowd – responds favorably,
amazed by his words and speaking well of him.
And so it can boggle the mind that Jesus responds so harshly,
as if he's saying in his best Holden Caulfield impersonation: "You're all a bunch of phonies.
You applaud my words and welcome me back home,
hoping, perhaps, that just because I'm from this place
that I'm going to give you all a special portion of these blessings.
But this Good News reaches beyond Nazareth, even beyond Israel.
There's no "hometown special" for you. Get over it.
It's like God's prophet Elijah –
there were all kinds of people in Israel who suffered from leprosy in his day,
but he went outside of Israel, to our enemy Syria, to heal a Gentile, Naaman.
Or it's like Elijah's successor, Elisha,
who during a great famine provided food and sustenance for a widow in Zarephath of Sidon –
but not to any widow in all of Israel.
You see, this Good News reaches beyond this nice little crowd you got gathered here
… and that just eats you up. Phonies. All of you."
It eats us up, too.
Like the people of Nazareth, we're all a bunch of phonies.
We receive the precious gift that is our Lord Jesus Christ,
and we want to keep him to ourselves,
to hold him close to our hearts,
or, at least, we want to stand near enough to him from time to time
that others see us in his holy presence.
What phonies we are.
We're phonies because we like what Jesus does for us,
how he makes us feel,
hoping his cultural cachet rubs off on us.
We might wear a cross around our necks,
and we attend church services on most Sunday mornings,
and this makes us feel good.
But how hard is that to do?
We live in a culture where Christianity, no matter how worn down by cultural mush,
is still the overwhelming and predominant religious presence.
Most people in our society don't work on Sunday mornings,
a wonderful cultural insulation making it easy for us to come to worship.
We're phonies if we think that all this makes us special or holy or righteous,
0160; and we miss the point if we're not willing to give this Jesus to others,
if we're unable to believe that Jesus' words of release to the captives and sight to the blind,
words of good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed
is real good news, a real promise for people out there, beyond these walls,
something to be shared,
something that we are called to give and proclaim to others …
Phonies, Holden Caulfield and Jesus might call us.
And in response, we might just be inclined to push that kind of a God off a cliff.
The problem is that God's Good News doesn't always sound like good news to us.
This Good News of release to the captive and sight to the blind,
of liberation to the oppressed is a Good News that changes the whole world,
not just in a spiritual sense, but in a very real, re-ordering of everything we know sense,
a reworking of the basic laws of economics, human nature, and even human biology.
Jesus has come to change the world, to invite us to see and to live in a changed world.
But change is something that we generally resist –
take a look at the poll numbers
and ask President Obama how that "change" mantra is working out for him, for example.
And though there are some who naively thought that Obama would change the world,
even the most dramatic changes that our President sought are nothing in magnitude
compared to the massive scale of change our Lord promises in the kingdom of God.
And this is scary to us. Good News? If I'm honest about it,
about my phoniness and my self-interest
and the fact that the world as it is kinda works for me,
I see this Good News as troubling and disturbing news, indeed, as a threat to my well-being.
Throw this God off a cliff! Please!
But our Lord won't be thrown off a cliff.
He won't be deterred by our unwillingness to hear this Good New
or our inability to see this new Kingdom.
He won't let us have our way. Because it's not about us.
Our God will walk right through us and take his message elsewhere, if need be,
for as he says later in Luke chapter 4,
"I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also;
for I was sent for this purpose." (Luke 4:43)
His word, his promises, his new kingdom depends not on us,
but rather is a function of his unending love and grace,
which we see most clearly in Jesus,
the Living and pretty darn persistent Word of God,
a reliable and trustworthy word that works faith and hope in those who hear it,
a Word which comes to us whether we like it or not,
a Word which feeds us, unworthy and phony as we are.
Come, Lord Jesus, even to us phonies.
Open us to your authentic life and love.
Change our hearts. Change our minds. Change our world.
Even though, if we're quite honest about it all, we'd rather you not.
May your Kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.