Beyond the Pushed Button

“Beyond the Pushed Button”

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On February 3rd, 2013

I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

             Our first passage for today is perhaps the Apostle Paul’s most famous writing—from the his first letter to the church in Corinth, the 13th chapter.   Known as the love chapter, this passage, our assigned lectionary reading for today, is often and appropriately read at weddings.  But it was originally written for a community—a community filled with people who, to put it mildly, didn’t always agree and whose actions toward each other weren’t always marked by love.   Every time I read about the Corinthian church, I give thanks for every church I’ve ever served—and particularly for this one.  Regardless, this is Paul’s word of correction to their unloving behavior.

 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

            Our Gospel lesson is a continuation of the passage I read last week from Jesus’ first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth, the one where he read the passage from Isaiah 61 (The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor).  When he finished reading that, he sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Our passage picks up with the people’s reaction to his words.  Listen now for how God might be speaking to you and me.

Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

             What is it that pushes your buttons?  What makes you see red, react without thinking, stop listening to anything else the person who is conversing with you is saying?  What irritates you?  What gets under your skin?  Think about that for a moment.  Did you come up with some things?  I did.

We all have a few things like that.  Usually the people who know us best know exactly what those things are.  In an ideal world they would use that power for good, and not for evil. Which means that they basically avoid using it.   Like the Apostle Paul said, love is patient, love is kind….

But that’s in an ideal world, and we don’t live in that world.  We live in a world where people, even people who care deeply for each other, at least occasionally push each other’s buttons.  So it’s good, too, to be aware of what sets us off and to breathe deeply before we react.

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             Like the Apostle Paul said, love is not irritable or resentful.  In other words, it isn’t touchy.  It doesn’t fly off the handle or hold a grudge.

I believe I’ve said this from this pulpit before, but it bears repeating, that one of my Mom’s favorite sayings is HALT.  H for hungry, a for angry, l for lonely, t for tired.  Whenever you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, you do well to halt.  Pause.  Stop.  Stop before you say something you regret.

Ann Lamott has a twist on that for Mothers in Law, she calls it WAIT. Why Am I Talking?[i]  But it’s not always easy to wait or to halt, right?

Brothers, sisters, spouses, parents and children, friends:  we know just what to say that can make the other person go off.   I was really good at doing that to my brother when we were younger. One time I got him so mad he threw a Rubik’s cube at me.  It hit the brick wall in our living room and exploded—into more than 27 pieces.

Then again sometimes a person can go off without warning.  You don’t even realize you’ve pushed a button until after they’ve reacted.

Buttons can get pushed in conversations among friends or on social media, too. Especially around certain issues—maybe that’s why they call them hot button issues.  You know what they are.  They provoke strong reactions.  People feel deeply about them.  We do get touchy.  In a charged environment it can be so easy to take things the wrong way.

It struck me this week in looking at our Gospel story from Luke that it is a pretty good example of buttons being pushed.  All the way around….

I’d contend that it starts with Jesus himself getting his buttons pushed, perhaps taking something the wrong way.  He’s just finished reading the scripture from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth.   He’s just told the people that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing.  And then Luke writes that they all spoke well of him—his listeners were amazed at the gracious words that come out of his mouth.  That’s a good thing, right? Who wouldn’t want to get a little praise, a little affirmation?  That always feels good.

But when the people start to say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” the tone of the interaction shifts dramatically.  It’s as if they’ve zinged Jesus somehow.

Of course, you can take, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” more than one way.  Just like reading an email or a Facebook post, we have no sense of the tone, the inflection, so we can only make assumptions.  It could be, “Hey, how about that!  Isn’t that Joseph’s boy!  Good for him.”   Or it could have sounded more like, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  Regardless, either could have felt like a bit of a put down:  like they weren’t taking him seriously enough.

I have a pastoral colleague who says that when she came back to her home church after she was ordained and delivered a sermon there, some people told her afterwards, “That was a nice little talk.”  Hmmm.

Perhaps the human Jesus was a little raw around the edges about that.  “What can we learn from the son of a carpenter?” he might have heard them saying.  (“Don’t they know whose son I really am?  And what’s wrong with being Joseph’s son?”)   “Who does he think he is?” he might have heard them saying….(“Oh yeah? I’ll show them.”)

Maybe all the people in Nazareth want is for the hometown boy to show them what he can do.  Work a little of that “Spirit of the Lord is upon me” stuff in their midst.  You know, help some blind people see, free some of the captives, that sort of thing…   But Jesus is not going to oblige them.  In fact, he assumes what they are going to say.   He puts words right in their mouths.

By the way, this happens in families all the time, right?  “Oh, you’re going to bring that up again, huh?”  We project what the other person is going to say.  The tapes play, and the various actors in the drama fall into their roles, and it’s the same old, same old.  Even in relatively non-dysfunctional families the pattern plays itself out again and again.

Anyway, for whatever reason, I think somebody or something pushed Jesus’ buttons.  So he went off. “No doubt you’re going to quote me the proverb that says physician heal thyself.  And you’re going to say, do here what you did in Capernaum.”

Well, our tradition says Jesus is the Son of God, so he was no doubt a better mind reader than the rest of us. But, it’s worth noting that they never actually had a chance to say what he said they no doubt were going to say.   When he tells them, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”  That’s when things start to get ugly. That’s when he pushes their buttons.

He does a little Bible study with them. He alludes to two stories about prophets who, even though there were plenty of needy people in their own country of Israel reached out and helped foreigners.  There were lots of poor widows in Israel, but Elijah helped a poor widow in Zarephath,  Jesus reminded them. There were lots of lepers in Israel, but Elisha healed the leper Naaman, who, if you know your Bible, was a Syrian general.  The implication was that the prophet’s mission was to the outsider as well as the insider, or to the outsider even more than the insider—because many insiders went unhealed in the days of Elijah and Elisha.

Luke puts this story near the beginning of his gospel—his take on Jesus’ life and its meaning—because the picture he paints of Jesus and his mission is centered in showing how he reaches out to the least, the last, and the lost—the Gentile, the outsider, the Samaritan, the foreigner, the Roman soldier, the Syrian general.

You need to understand that talking about God helping a Syrian general would have gone over about as well among the Israelites of Jesus day as it would among the Israelis of today.  It would be like telling a congregation of Christians, a minority in Lebanon, that they are called to be kind and gracious to their Muslim neighbors.  It would be like telling people who get their news analysis from MSNBC that they might have something to learn from FOX news and the people who listen to it.  Or vice versa.  Or, that if you can’t learn something from them, at least that you shouldn’t demonize those with whom you disagree.

If you want to be heard, you don’t talk positively about Syrian generals. If I were Jesus’ P.R. person, his campaign director, or his therapist, if I were his advisor, I would have told him to strike that particular example.  “Uh, that part about Naaman?  Jesus,  I was thinking you might want to leave that out.  I can guarantee you that won’t end well.”

But here’s the thing.  Although I get confused about this from time to time (as we all do) I am not supposed to be Jesus’ advisor.  He’s supposed to be mine, and yours, too.

And Jesus pushes my buttons, and maybe yours, too, because he stands there in Nazareth telling me that the people I think are beyond the pale are also recipients of God’s love and healing   And he hangs there in Jerusalem asking God to forgive those who demonized him.

Jesus pushes my buttons, and maybe yours, too, because we all know how tempting it is in this highly partisan environment to simply write people off because they disagree with us.

The great thing about the history of Immanuel is that, at our best, this has been a place where there has been room for dialogue on the Vietnam War and other wars, on economic and foreign policy, on social issues.  We have not always agreed, but when we haven’t, we have by and large agreed to disagree at least somewhat agreeably, because there is something bigger that unites us.  That something is the idea, as Ronald Reagan said, that, “We are people who believe love can triumph over hate, creativity over destruction, and hope over despair, and that’s why so many millions hunger for God’s good news.”[ii]

Sometimes we need to have our buttons pushed.  Sometimes they are, whether we need them to be or not.  The question is what happens next?   Do we halt, wait, and even listen?  Contemplate what it is that we might learn from the other?   Engage in respectful dialogue, which means not impugning the character of those with whom we disagree?          Or do we follow the example of the good people of Nazareth, who, when their buttons were pushed, took Jesus to a cliff outside of town and tried to throw him over.  Of course, that didn’t stop Jesus, who somehow passed through the midst of them, continuing on his button pushing way all the way to the cross.

If he’d just had a better P.R. person, he might have avoided that fate.

I have a friend who is reading a biography of Mahatma Gandhi right now.  Yesterday he passed along a quote from the book that makes me think about Jesus and not just Gandhi,

“By doing at all moments what he thought right and not what he thought expedient, or comfortable, or profitable, or popular, or safe, or impressive, Gandhi eliminated the conflicts in his personality and thereby acquired the power to engage in patient, peaceful conflicts with those whom he regarded as doing wrong. He took words and ideas seriously and felt that having accepted a moral precept he had to live it. Then he could preach it. He preached what he practiced.

At the root of innumerable wrongs in our civilization is the discrepancy between word, creed, and deed. It is the weakness of churches, states, parties, and persons. It gives men and institutions split personalities. Gandhi attempted to heal the split by establishing harmony in place of discrepancy, and as he progressively attained it he became happy, relaxed, and gay.

Gandhi had mental health because in him word, creed, and deed were one: he was integrated. That is the meaning of integrity. ‘The truth shall make you free’–and well. Through truth, Gandhi set himself free in order to go to jail.”[iii]

Have your buttons been pushed?  Mine have.  So what are you and I going to do about it?

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

[i] I heard Ann say this at a book signing at Politics and Prose about a year ago.  I don’t think it’s actually in her book,  Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son (New York: Riverhead, 2012), but it would certainly fit.

[ii] This is from one of his speeches, and was played as part of a video tribute to him at his memorial service at Bel Air Presbyterian Church.  You can see the entire tribute here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvN1jTkzXbY

[iii] Louis Fischer,  Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World (New York: Signet, 1982, first published in 1950), p. 40.

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