My esteemed colleague Pastor Maggie was pastor of a small parish in a working class section of Philadelphia for many years. This blue collar neighborhood was home to a number of fish canneries and factories back in the nineteenth century. Today the long-closed and rusted factories have become gentrified loft apartments, but the area still retains its working class identification. Recently, Maggie told me of a phenomenon she'd witnessed while ministering in this locality. It seems that many youngsters had gone off to college only to return home without a diploma. Some girls got pregnant after their freshman year, and never finished the higher education they began with so much promise. Some boys dropped out, returned home, took union jobs like their fathers, married high school girlfriends at the local fire hall, and settled down in row homes a block or two away from their parents' house.
Why? What was it that derailed the academic expectations of these young people? Maggie opined that, although the young students truly desired to be educated and successful, they could not bring themselves to be more educated and successful than their parents had been.
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In the Revised Common Lectionary gospel appointed for this Sunday (Luke 4: 21-30), Jesus has returned to his hometown. He is a local boy who has made good out in the world. He's invited to teach in the local synagogue, and everyone is speaking highly of him. One gets the feeling from this text that the good folks of Nazareth were expecting something from Jesus. Would he do for them the sort of miraculous works for which he had become renown? Would his fame cast its glorious light on them? Would they be able to offer him the key to the city and erect a sign on the outskirts of town reading "Welcome to Nazareth: Home of Jesus Son of Joseph?"
Jesus doesn't offer them any special treatment. Perhaps there is an uncomfortable pause after he declares that he has come to preach good news to the poor, let the oppressed go free, and declare the year of the Lord's favor.
"So who are we, chopped liver?" you can hear them ask. "Aren't we poor and oppressed, too?!" Suddenly this local hero doesn't seem quite so heroic.
"What?! No special blessing for us? No shout out? Who does this punk kid think he is, anyway? Why, I knew him when he was just knee high. I remember when he was twelve years old and got lost on his way back from Jerusalem. Look at him now, putting on airs and acting all high and mighty!"
How quickly pride turns to disdain. And how jealous we can be of the success of the familiar. Perhaps such success makes us think of how little we ourselves have accomplished with the gifts God has given us? In the mirror of others' achievements we see only our own fears and foolish mistakes. And we don't care for what we see.
Yes, we want our loved ones to do well. Just not better than we ourselves have done. And as it was in Jesus' time, so it remains in our own. Can we ever celebrate our friends' and neighbors' successes without reflecting on our own merit? Can we ever allow that our adult children are really adults and relate to them as equals rather than as extensions of our own egos? Can we ever learn to love so unselfishly that we forget ourselves?
I rather like the fact that this week's gospel has been paired with St. Paul's great Love Hymn in 1 Corinthians:
"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." (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)
Paul is teaching us about a grown-up kind of love. It's the love that understands we have nothing to lose when others are blessed, because our own lives are so filled with the everyday blessings of God. We have heard the good news. We have had our blind eyes opened. We have been set free from the oppression of our own sinful natures, and we have nothing but joy and gratitude to share. Where we are, who we are, what we do, what we have--these are all God's gifts. And if others are envious or demanding of us, we, like Jesus, have enough love, peace, and acceptance to pass through their midst unhurt.
Let me know what you think.
God bless you, my friends, and may you all be VERY successful in what God wants you to do.