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"But Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home..." Familiarity and Intimacy
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on February 3, 2013

Christ Church Andover
Epiphany IV
February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.

The community in Nazareth thought they knew what they were getting into when Jesus started his preaching in the synagogue. He did all the right things—he opened the scroll to the right place, read well and from a well-known passage, but then he started to preach a different sermon than the one they expected to hear. Before he opened his mouth, they kept saying to themselves, this is Joseph’s boy—one of our own! What a star he’s become. Even the gospel of Luke proclaims that all spoke well of him and of the gracious words that came from his mouth. However, after he finished his reflection on the scripture—the words of Isaiah that we heard last week, his fellow Nazarites all but pushed him over a cliff, he angered and offended them so much.

What did Jesus preach to inspire this reaction? What would I have to preach to receive that reaction from you? He took the passage from Isaiah and pronounced that it was not only the Israelites who God was working through—but the great plan of God’s will and relationship was being worked out through the foreigners—the widow at Zarapheth, Naaman the Syrian—all non-Jewish folk, non-righteous people. It was, at best, a direct insult for all those who had expected one kind of sermon from Jesus—and received something very different. They received a challenge which cut to their very core: Jesus said that God was working through the foreigners, the strangers, the random folk on the street—not only them. Those who knew Jesus from his childhood received not an affirmation by him, but a wake-up call. The familiar warm and fuzzy feeling that they had come to expect turned into a different experience for both Jesus and the people together.

When Chris and I were preparing to get married, we did the traditional three sessions of marriage counseling with my sponsoring priest, Tad Meyer, who went on to preach at our wedding. I had offered pre-marital counseling with others before as their priest, and I had, over several months, secretly taken Chris through the books that I used with others couples, sneaking probing questions in here and there— what were you taught about money and financial decisions? What did your parents and other family members teach you about relationships? What images do you have of marriage? But when we sat down with him, Tad didn’t start with those questions. Instead, he spoke with us for an entire session on the difference between familiarity and intimacy. Familiarity, he said, rested in one person believing they knew everything there was to know about the other person, and making judgments and creating expectations based on those assumptions. It might look like this. Chris likes fish when we go out to eat—my regular assumption is is that he’ll order a fish dish, and I, as usual, will order something else, knowing that I’ll have a few bites off his plate when we eat. But what happens to when Chris orders something else—how do I react when the core of what I thought I knew—but really just assumed, and therefore never inquired about or questioned—changes? It’s like the quote from the movie ‘Airplane’: “But Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home...” Familiarity, Tad reminded us in that first counseling session, happens when we stop being intrigued or interested or curious about the other—when we rely on past experience as the sole knowledge we have.

Intimacy however—intimacy was the opposite of familiarity, Tad continued. Intimacy invites surprise— it is the outcome of deep trust between two people which relies instead on the depth of the relationship, rather than the ease of it. It might sound a little like the difference between quality and quantity. Intimacy grounds itself not in assumed knowledge, but in wonder, in openness. To continue the example, when Chris doesn’t order fish at the restaurant, and I am relying on that to happen, intimacy might lead me to lose my assumptions, and invite me to think in a new way. It would not lodge itself in the disappointment of things being different, but in the great enjoyment of discovering something new about Chris—that (and yes, the example of a dinner order is a shallow example of this) there is a possible unfolding and deepening of a relationship, romantic or otherwise—the reminder that there is always more there than we assume. Familiarity, Tad reminded us, was the warning sign of problems in a relationship. It’s when you stop asking, inquiring or trying, because you believe you already know the answer or outcome. Signaled by complacency, it would render us desensitized, and liable to look elsewhere for that wonder, that openness.

Both familiarity and intimacy are possible in every relationship we have. They can be found in our relationships with friends and family (just think about the last time you repeated ‘uh huh’ mindlessly as you were on the phone with someone because you knew where the conversation was inevitably headed). We can also find that in our relationships with a community, when we take their support or presence and our own interaction for granted. And—as we discover in this morning’s readings, we can find both familiarity and intimacy with God. Those people listening to Jesus in the synagogue assumed they knew what Jesus was going to say; they assumed they knew what their relationship with God looked like. Jesus answered the age-old scripture in the scroll he read with a new image of God, one that moved beyond the bounds of expectation, in new and unheard of ways, in ways that made them—and perhaps us—uncomfortable. God was doing a new thing. Jesus was doing new thing. They were asking God’s chosen people to do a new thing along with them. They were asking for a new intimacy to be born of that covenant between them.

Intimacy, at its essence, is the continued, persistent work of what we know as love. It is what keeps two people or parties in the joyful and the hard conversations, without the fear that the other will walk out on them, and leave the relationship behind. It is what cultivates that trust that lets each grow and move and have their being while also knowing that we are never fully independent of the other. And while we tend to romanticize love, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it involves a number of things, which challenge many of us, even on our good days.

If you are familiar with popular movies, you might remember this reading from the movie ‘Wedding Crashers’. In it, the two protagonists spend their summer weekends crashing other peoples’ weddings, and at one point start making bets as to whether this reading will be in the wedding ceremony. It always is. It is THE most familiar wedding reading we have in our tradition. Most people have heard the following passage: “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 in that familiarity with it we can lose sight of the message it brings us. It sounds pretty, but it lays out for us a new notion of what we are being asked not only in our personal relationships, but also in our relationship with God. We are being asked to demonstrate humility; servanthood; patience; openness in the name of love. It begs of us not a movie-ending, but a revolution where we are willing to be wrong, willing to listen and change, and willing to end our childish ways where we are the centers of our world, rather than God.  It asks us that our relationship with the divine, and our actions, be born of that place of intimacy, where all things are possible because we are grounded in that trust.

So let me ask you: how intimate is our own relationship with God? How intimate is our relationship with God’s people? Do we become too entrenched in the familiar from time to time, and stop being aware of the ongoing surprises offered us in faith?

I wonder if we are sometimes not unlike those people of Nazareth, listening to a favorite piece of scripture read by one of their own, Jesus, and then being told it meant that what they were to do to continue their relationship with God wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t as straightforward as it was ten minutes before they heard it. I wonder if sometimes our scripture, our Christian traditions can become so familiar to us that we lose the radical sense that it held—and still does hold should we look closely into it—all is mellowed into a vague niceness. When does our relationship with God feel familiar, rather than intimate? Have we been carrying on with our faith as though we knew where it would take us, we know what it will order for dinner, and we can probably assume where it will go next? When does faith carry our assumptions rather than us diving into it headfirst and seeing where we surface once we come up for air?

Often, we tend to reassign the heavy ‘religious’ lifting to others. Every one of us here, to a certain extent, believes that someone else in this room can do the ‘work’ of faith better than they can—and in a world and culture of professionalism, that is what we are trained to believe. But as we heard this morning, God does not work through those who by all intents and purposes are the right fit for that job. Our God is a god who does not work through the strong or through fear or through perfection, but through imperfect, inadequate, try and try again beings who love, and mess up, and learn to say they are sorry and try again. Our God is a god of continual surprises in that way. It would be easier if our God were simple to read, to intuit. But God isn’t. But God wants to be known in all of God’s layers and depth, just as we are known by God. The work of faith is extended to all, and indeed it is those who believe that they have nothing to offer, or not the right things to offer, that God is most likely to empower.

Imagine God saying to you the words to the boy Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy/ a working parent/ too old/ barely a Christian/ full of doubt/ too busy for something too complicated/ not really a nice person when you get to know me/ insert personal designation here." But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only this or that'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Now go and preach it.


Last Published: February 5, 2013 2:56 PM