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“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Lk. 4).
In our recent move we threw away stacks of children’s art projects (cards that said “Daddy I Love You”!), letters and photographs from friends who have died, old toys, clothes, and picture books. It hurt to leave things that represented our kids’ childhood at the curb. We held tightly to those objects. They tenuously connected us to a whole stage of life that is now gone.
In a sense, our material things come to own us, but our opinions and thoughts, they seem like they are us. How much harder it is to leave these at the curb. So often we act as if the spiritual life consists primarily in adding new disciplines, and responsibilities when what we most need to learn is to let go, to give over our life to God. What do we need to let go in order to find our home in God? What do we leave behind when we live in Christ?
1. Text. We follow a three-year cycle in our Sunday readings. This year we focus on the theology of Luke. Luke uses the most complex Greek vocabulary and syntax of the Gospel writers. He feels at home in the cosmopolitan world of the Roman Empire. He also has a very clear idea about what it means to follow Jesus. The theology that lies at the heart of his Gospel is exemplified in Jesus’ first public act of ministry.
After being baptized and then tempted in the wilderness Jesus returns to the area around his home. Through his teachings he becomes “doxazomenous upo panton.” This word doxa is related to our word doxology. It means praise and at first Jesus is praised by all. But then he returns to Nazareth, where he was “tethrammenos” we would translate it as “where he was raised,” or where he grew up. The Greek word trepho literally means where he was fed or nurtured. The very cells and physical material of his body came from the food grown on the hills outside of town. Luke emphasizes that these are his people.
By this point Jesus has established his routine. He reads scripture to the congregation and then in accordance with the ancient teaching practice he sits to explain what it means. He chooses to read the prophet Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk. 4). We have only half the story this week with the rest next coming next Sunday. I’m going to spoil next week’s surprise.
After his reading, after his teaching, the crowds try to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff. Why do they become so angry? Let me suggest three possibilities. First, you might think that the idea that he has a special mission to the poor and oppressed was controversial. In response, I would say that his audience would have been familiar with this theme from the ancient prophets. Furthermore, they were likely to regard themselves as the poor whom God favors. Second, the crowd could have been angry over the suggestion that he is the anointed one or the messiah. However, directly after making this statement, Luke writes, “[a]ll spoke well of him” (Lk. 4). Luke wants us to see that what really angers the crowd is Jesus’ rejection of a special obligation to his own people. Jesus refers to Old Testament stories in which God heals gentiles (non-Jewish people) and points out that during those times faithful Jews were allowed to die. This infuriated his hometown.
At the center of Luke’s faith lies the impossible idea that God’s love is for all people regardless of kinship, nationality, religion, social status or any other claim that we might make for special treatment. According to Luke we have to give up our tribe when we follow Jesus.
The Apostle Paul deeply believes this too. The most important fact for people living in the Roman Empire must have been its rigid social stratification. And yet Paul writes, “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free… we were made to drink of the same spirit” (1 Cor. 12). He calls those who follow Jesus one body. Some Romans thought that Christians drank blood and sacrificed children. But what really shocked them most was that a man and a woman, a senator and a slave could treat each other as equals.
2. Doctrine. The twentieth century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) has helped me to understand the meaning of Luke’s teaching for our own time. Growing up as a Jew in the Russian Empire in what is now Lithuania, Levinas experienced the 300th anniversary celebration of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian revolutions of 1917. He began an academic career in the French-speaking world going on to serve in the French army during World War Two. After his unit was captured in 1940, he spent the rest of the war reading and writing in a prisoner of war camp. Although his wife and daughter were safely hidden in a monastery, the Nazis killed most of his family.
Levinas’ philosophy may be difficult to understand. Let me begin with the context. In the twentieth century philosophers called positivists believed that the only kind of knowledge that really counts is what can be proven by science. You may be one step ahead of me in wondering if science can prove that science is the only reliable knowledge, but that is roughly what they believed. In contrast to this kind of approach, Emmanuel Levinas believed that there is far more to experience than thinking (“cogito”).
Instead of beginning with a theory about how the world is (ontology), or what we know about the world (epistemology), we need to start with our experience (or how the “world shows up for us” to use an expression from Werner Erhard). According to Levinas, the idea that we need to throw out is that we can have more confidence about abstract notions of logic or reason than in the simple experience of another person’s need. For this reason he calls ethics “first philosophy.”
Levinas writes that we try to think beyond what can be thought. But that does not mean it has to remain completely inaccessible. “[T]he idea of the infinite or my relation to God, comes to me in the concreteness of my relation to the other [person]… [in my} responsibility for the neighbor.”
We experience this infinite, this connection to God, through another person’s face. It makes a demand on us. It creates an obligation that we cannot ignore.
We make constant judgments based on other people’s faces, we respond with unconscious prejudices. But for Levinas, another person’s face reveals infinitely more than we are able to take in.
He calls this an epiphany, our only chance to grasp the infinite. It is the way that the holy presents itself to us.
For this reason Levinas frequently quotes Alyosha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov who says, “We are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.”
All thought, all experience, all goodness and holiness begins in our obligation to the other person. Let me move on to one way that Levinas’ philosophy changes how I experience the world.
3. Application. The struggle to realize Luke and Paul’s ideal continues today. The Anglican Communion is the third largest Christian body in the world. Grace Cathedral participates in this fellowship. We Anglicans do not have an international hierarchy or a pope. Each national church chooses its own leaders, makes its own decisions and prays in its own way. No foreign bishop, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, has any jurisdiction in America at all.
For ten years, some of the other Anglican churches have felt alarmed by our new policies supporting gay marriage. Last week the primates, that is, the heads of the various churches chose to exclude the American branch from participating on high level Anglican committees for three years. I do not completely understand the politics of the whole decision, but I do know that Americans feel hurt and excluded.
For Levinas each vulnerable face reveals far more than I can ever take in and becomes my chance to experience God. Praying about this has changed my understanding of the Anglican infighting. These days I have been wondering about what has led other Anglicans to condemn our church. I have asked myself what pain and fear oppresses their souls.
But even more importantly, Levinas has helped me to see the most defenseless faces, to hear the powerless voices who hardly seem to be part of this conversation. GLBT people suffer terribly around the world. Their love is criminalized. They are beaten, imprisoned and persecuted. They are forbidden from being themselves. Yes, the American church will not be allowed to participate in meetings, but these children of God are losing their lives.
I began by talking about how hard it is to throw away the extra things that our family has accumulated over the years. Although so many of these objects seem to preserve our connection to the past, they are no longer useful today. Just as with those things, we also carry ideas and opinions that no longer serve us.
In this process the Buddhist teacher Timber Hawkeye encourages us to keep asking ourselves which of our thoughts arise out of fear and which come from love. He quotes the eighth century Buddhist monk Shantideva who says, “All happiness in the world stems from wanting others to be happy, and all suffering in the world stems from wanting the self to be happy.”
The theology of Luke and Paul that God loves every creature does not come easy to us. It is hard to let go of the thought that we need to help ourselves first and then the people who are most like us. It is difficult to imagine that what really matters in life might not be scarce after all. I do not expect that we will always recognize another person’s face as an epiphany, but we can begin to look more closely in each other for the infinite, for the holy, for the meaning that will always exc
[i] This experience of the Other is more central than Rene Descartes’ question about what knowledge can we regard as reliable.
[ii] Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind. Tr. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), xiv.
[iii] The word “face” refers to, “the way in which the presentation of the other to me exceeds all idea of the other in me Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader. Tr. Seán Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 5.
[iv] Emmanuel Levinas, The Levinas Reader. Tr. Seán Hand (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1989), 1.
[v] Timber Hawkeye, Buddhist Boot Camp (NY: HarperOne, 2013), 4.