When I was a college student, I minored in art. In one of my painting classes, I learned a trick that I’ve used over and over again.
The challenge for any artist is getting too close to what you are creating. You work on a drawing or painting for so long, that you stop seeing how it looks to others. It’s easy to miss bodies that are out of proportion, or distorted faces, or leaning landscapes.
One of my college professors, Dr. Bruce McClain—who still teaches art at Gustavus Adolphus College—taught me a technique that makes you see your work of art from a totally different viewpoint.It’s actually very simple. All you do is take your painting, and hold it in front of a mirror. Looking at it in a mirror flips the image. You should try it. Maybe you’re not an artist, but just take a picture you like and test it out. I guarantee you will see things you never saw before.
On the wall of my art studio at home, there’s a large mirror Charlie and I bought years ago at an antique store. Whether I’m designing a mosaic or doing a watercolor, I stop from time to time and look at it in the mirror. Almost always, something jumps out at me. I see it with a new perspective.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus himself becomes that kind of mirror. Not literally, of course. Though I suppose, if Jesus could turn water into wine like he did in the reading we had a couple weeks ago, he could also do some magic with mirrors.
In fact, in today’s lesson, it sounds like people were expecting that. For someone asked Jesus, “Are you going to do something like we heard you did at Capernaum?”
But what Jesus does in this lesson is not magical. It’s prophetic. He makes people look at something they don’t want to see.
This story is a continuation of last week’s lesson. Jesus has returned his hometown faith community. At first, we get the feeling that all the people love Jesus. They hang on his every word. But then the mood changes. Jesus says something that offends everyone in the room. It’s like he holds a mirror up to their community, and shows an ugly reflection, previously invisible to them.
Based on the stories Jesus tells, I can guess what that issue is. Can you?
To illustrate, Jesus tells a couple stories well-known in Jewish folklore about the two most famous Hebrew prophets. The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. And the story of Elisha and the leper Naaman. Nearly three millennia ago, the prophet Elijah was threatened by Israel’s King Ahab, who was a tyrant. So, Elijah flees his home country, as a refugee. He crosses the border and travels to Zarephath, a Phoenician city to the north. Along the road, Elijah meets a nameless widow in a field. Elijah asks her to prepare a meal for him, from the last bit of flour in a jar and oil in a jug left in her pantry. Which she does, but the food never runs out. God saves this Phoenician woman and her son from starvation.
The second story is about Elisha, Elijah’s successor. About how Elisha helps Naaman, a commander of the Syrian army, who has leprosy. During much of their history, Israel and Syria were enemies—as they are today. Normally, an Israelite would help a Syrian. Naaman’s wife has an Israelite servant girl, who tells her that the prophet could heal her husband. So, they send for Elisha, who instructs Naaman to go bathe in the Jordan River seven times. It sounds like magic. But Naaman thinks it’s a stupid idea and refuses to do it. Eventually, his servant convinces him to just give it a try. And God heals Naaman, the Syrian leper.
These are the two stories that Jesus uses in his sermon. Stories that make the people in his synagogue angry. Stories that have one thing in common. The person assisted by each prophet is a foreigner, a person of a different race and country. Using these stories, Jesus holds a mirror to the faces of his faith community in Nazareth. A mirror that reveals deep-seated racism. And long-established hatred of immigrants. An unspoken belief that God would never help people like that.
Sound familiar? If Jesus were here today, and held up a mirror to the face of our community, I wonder—would we see a similar image?
When Jesus says this to the people in the synagogue, they are so infuriated, they want to kill him. They actually try to throw him off a cliff. But there’s a missing detail in this story. For modern archaeologists tell us there was no cliff outside of Nazareth. The angry crowd would have to drag Jesus about two miles to get to a place like that. But maybe the group is so filled with hate—like a lynch mob—that’s exactly what they do.
It reminds me of this week’s news story about Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” show star who suffered a violent attack in Chicago. One of his friends reported what happened. The actor arrived from New York late Monday night. Early Tuesday morning he was hungry, so he decided to get something to eat at Subway. On the way, Jussie is attacked by two white men, who call him a “faggot”—an ugly, ugly word—and then pounce on him.
Jussie fights back, but they beat him badly. Then they actually put a rope around his neck and pour bleach on him. As they leave, they yell, “This is MAGA country!” What’s even more shocking is that this wasn’t the first time Jussie was targeted. A few days before, a letter addressed to him was sent to Fox Studios in Chicago, with cut-out letters that read, “You will die, black fag.” More ugly words. Despite all that, police and others have expressed doubt that it was a hate crime.
Ugly, homophobic words and brutal, racist actions. Not unlike what Jesus faced. Though Jesus was targeted not for who he was, but whom he stood for. The foreigner. The outcast. The stranger. The leper.
Jesus, the Light of the world, shines a mirror that reflects those marginalized faces back to his and our community. And reveals the compassionate face of God. Our second lesson talks about that kind of mirror. A mirror that reflects not hatred, but love. In the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, which is really a love song, St. Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.”
Those words remind me of the day, 30 years ago, when I attended my first service at a new gay church in Minneapolis. It was a small, start-up church for our LGBTQ community—with no building, no denomination, no support from other congregations. It was called “Spirit of the Lakes.” Because it had no building, the first services were held at The Aliveness Project, a community center for HIV+ individuals.
Eventually both the congregation and Aliveness would have a big impact on my life. I met my husband Charlie at the church that fall. And a little over a decade later, I was hired as executive director of Aliveness, and worked there for 14 years. The church services were held in a large meeting room at Aliveness. Previously, the room had been used for yoga classes, so one wall was covered with mirrors, floor to ceiling.
During the service, all of us worshipers faced the wall of mirrors, looking at our reflections. The mirror images were very distracting and disorientating.
Since then, I’ve wondered if there was a purpose in that. Maybe the pastor thought it was a powerful symbol for us LGBTQ individuals to stare at ourselves and one another as we worshiped.
For many, this was their first experience at a queer church. During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when many of us were losing friends and loved ones. During a period when there was little acceptance, and no legal protections for people like us. During a time when many of us hid our faces in dark closets.
Looking back, it was liberating to see the smiles of people like me singing hymns and praising God together. The mirrors revealed our reflections as God’s creatures, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. Those mirrors reflected a lot of love. And to see clearly the face of Jesus among us. To view our world and ourselves with new eyes.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Some [people] see things as they are, and ask why. Others dream things that never were, and ask why not.”
My prayer today, is that Jesus will help us see things that no one else can see. To see people not through the lens of racism or homophobia or hatred. But through a mirror of love—that transforms the world from the nightmare vision it sometimes is, into the dream that God intends it to be.
May God in Christ make that unknown dream and that unseen vision a reality among us, here at St. Mark’s today. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 4:21-30
Then Jesus 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 hometown 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 hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up 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.