Year C; 4 Epiphany; 2.3.2019
Did anyone read the article in the “Boston Globe” this weekend about the stress of Patriot’s fans? The headline was, “Being a Patriots fan is hard on the body and mind (and there is actual science on this).” The article goes on to say, “If people would only understand how painful it would be for us to lose the Super Bowl when a sixth victory is our birthright or even a seventh victory is our birthright…A local clinical psychologist says, ‘This is a heavy week for stress.’”
I wonder if the LA Rams are making a similar claim to “birthright.” I think they could!
This whole idea of “birthright” is tricky, I think. There are two kinds of birthright. One is “…a particular right of possession or privilege someone has from birth.” We are familiar with this kind of birthright in Scripture, for example the birthright of the eldest male.
We may remember that Jacob, at his mother’s bidding stole the birthright of his twin brother (eldest by a few minutes), and there was a long-standing feud between them. Or the story of the Prodigal Son when the squandering son returned to his father after losing everything, his inheritance. When the son returned home, the father ran down the road to greet him saying that his son was dead and now he was alive. The father gave him his signet ring, the symbol of birthright. That made the eldest brother furious. In modern times we hear of the birthright of royalty or of wealthy families – privilege and wealth passed down from birth.
But there is another kind of birthright. This is a natural or moral right, possessed by everyone. The right to be treated with dignity and justice or the right to an education or the right to be free or the right to pray and worship God.
If some people might think their birthright gives them a certain privileged status over others, Jesus dispels that notion in the story from Luke’s Gospel this morning.
Jesus had just read from the prophet Isaiah about God’s personal aid to the lowliest of people, poor people, incarcerated people, blind people and oppressed people. Initially, his hometown congregation thought well of him because stories had come back to Nazareth about his bold preaching and healing. And they surely said to themselves, “Look at him! He’s reading from the prophet Isaiah so well as a lector, and with such authority!”
All was going to well in his hometown synagogue. But then, Jesus shone a light into their hearts and revealed their narrow-mindedness. It seems that when they realized Jesus was saying that they might not have the privileged status of special birthright – that God had special pity on foreigners and the oppressed – even foreign widows like the widow of Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian, well, his hometown received these stories as an insult to their privilege and ran Jesus out of town.
What they hadn’t considered was that their birthright to receive God’s aid – love and mercy was constant for all God’s people. They had accepted God’s claim on them as daughters and sons. But there was more good news Jesus preached to them: there is no one outside of God’s love.
So, back to the Patriots example. Imagine an avid Patriots fan going into the Patriot’s locker room, opening up the prophet’s scroll and saying, “Listen to this great news! The LA Rams have the same birthright that you have! See how God aids them! There IS a wideness in God’s mercy for all of us!”
I don’t think they’d go for it, do you?
But I would be telling them the truth. There IS a wideness in God’s mercy and love that isn’t fathomable by our worldly standards. Christians believe that the sacrament of baptism symbolizes our equal status in God’s eyes. No matter our worldly “birthright” status, no matter our wealth or poverty, we are equally children of God. Those who suffer are even more beloved because of their suffering.
One of my favorite stories that is proof of our universal birthright to receive God’s love and mercy is one told by Dorothee Soelle, the late German Christian Liberation Theologian whose work centered on the human causes of human suffering. She studied the unspeakable suffering of Nazi concentration camps and concluded that God wasn’t in some remote place allowing it to happen. She concluded that God was intimately with each and every person in their suffering – that God suffered with them.
In her book, “Celebrating Resistance: The Way of the Cross in Latin America,” she tells of a gang of children who live in the squalor of the streets in Rio de Janiero. “The existence of street children …is a significant problem…as many as 25MM homeless youth are in Brazil. They are stripped of their humanity…these kids sound hopeless when they say, ‘I steal, I walk around, I sniff glue, and then I can’t do anything.’”
Missionaries of several denominations work together to help relieve these kids of their suffering. Dorothee Soelle tells the story about a group of boys who were friends. “Every day boys from the street got together at one spot to chat, to discuss their problems and to share their fears and anger…Many came regularly.”
The location was near where some of the Christian missionaries worked and lived. Soelle writes, “One day one of the boys said, ‘I would like to be baptized.’ The Catholic missionary asked, ‘In which church…do you want to be baptized?’ The child said, ‘In OUR church, where else?’ ‘But in what church building are you talking about?’ asked the Lutheran pastor. The boy answered, ‘No, no building. Our church is here on the street. I want to be baptized here among us.’”
HE was saying “MY birthright is to be baptized where I live – on the street.”
“The Methodist missionary thought about it a moment and said, ‘Well, if it’s not in a Church, we can’t issue the proper certification.’ The Catholic thought it wouldn’t be possible to participate with the local, tribal…religious leader that the boys had befriended. But the boy insisted. Finally, one of the pastors set up the baptismal font in the street by placing a board over two crates. He filled an old boot with water for flowers which the children collected. The Catholic missionary brought a candle. And the baptism took place within the body of Christ, out on the street, in the name of the Holy Trinity.”
No one could take away the birthright of these children, the world’s lowest, dirtiest and most troubled.
Perhaps some of the “winners” and privileged of this world don’t understand the equalizing power of God’s love. But those children did and came to claim it.
What do WE hear when Jesus singles out those who are most troubled and cast aside for God’s love and mercy? Do we secretly feel slighted and angry?
Or do we enter in to the joy of our own birthright and claim as siblings those who are the most troubled and cast aside?