Sunday, January 30, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 16:34; sermon starts around 23:24)
(all images borrowed from Disney’s Encanto – obviously)
A few weeks ago, my siblings and I got together over Zoom and watched Disney’s latest animated movie: Encanto. And I’ve got to admit, I still cannot get the songs out of my head! If you’ve seen the movie yourself, you already know what I’m talking about – those tunes are catchier than the Omicron variant! So, of course, sooner or later, it had to make its way into a sermon, haha.
If you haven’t seen Encanto, I highly recommend it. The movie tells the story of a Colombian family: the Madrigals. After the family matriarch – Alma – is forced to flee her hometown because of violence, the family is blessed with a miracle: they receive a magical, sentient house that moves and shapes itself at will and protects the family. And along with the house, every single member of the Madrigal family is blessed with some kind of magical power: one has super strength; one has super hearing; another has the ability to talk to animals or to control the weather, and so on. Everyone in this whole extended family receives their special power when they reach a certain age – everyone, that is, except for one person: Alma’s granddaughter, Mirabel. For some unknown reason, Mirabel is the only one who doesn’t receive the gift of magic.
And you can start to tell, from the beginning of the movie, the tension that this creates within the family. The tension starts to manifest physically as cracks appearing all over the house, in the walls and the floors, and some members of the family even start losing their powers. Mirabel decides to make it her mission to figure out what is going wrong with the magic and fix it. And along the way, she stumbles across her long-lost uncle, Bruno, whose gift is the ability to foresee the future. Bruno had left the family years before because his gift made had him an outcast; people in the family and in the community had started blaming Bruno for the negative things that he sometimes predicted – even though it wasn’t his fault! They even sing a whole song about it called “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”
Mirabel discovers that Bruno never actually left. In fact, he has been hiding in the house this whole time and secretly patching up the cracks in the walls – cracks that had been showing up ever since he was rejected by the family years before. The division in the family – first with Bruno, and now with Mirabel, is literally tearing their house apart.
Alma, the family matriarch, blames Mirabel for this. She even yells at Mirabel in front of everyone that she is hurting the family. But as her grandmother is yelling at her, Mirabel notices the cracks in the house spreading and getting deeper, and she realizes what’s actually happening. She confronts Alma and tells her that the house is breaking because of her: first she rejected Bruno, then Mirabel herself, and she has put so much pressure on the rest of the family to be perfect and flawless that it’s tearing them apart. Alma has become so narrowly focused on making sure that her family is perfect and worthy of the miracle they were given that she has forgotten the first and most important thing: love. She has forgotten to love her family.
I take the time to retell the story because I think there are some really interesting parallels between this story and the story in our gospel reading. At first glance, it’s pretty easy to see the lack of love in this story! (Trying to throw somebody off a cliff isn’t exactly a loving action.) But it goes even a little deeper.
You might remember that we actually started reading this story in our gospel reading last week. Jesus has been traveling all around Galilee, preaching and being very well-received wherever he goes – that is, until he gets to his home town of Nazareth. Last week, on the sabbath, Jesus stood up in the temple and read from the scroll of Isaiah and basically said, “This scripture is about me; you’re welcome,” and sat down. It was a very mic-drop kind of moment. And the reaction Jesus gets is very mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, people are “amazed” at his words, but they’re also like, “Isn’t that just Joseph’s kid?”
And then today the story takes a turn that’s a little harder to follow. The people really get up in arms after Jesus references this pair of stories from the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament): the story of Elijah and the widow and the story of Elisha and Naaman.
To briefly recap these stories: Elijah is sent by God to a widow in the region of Sidon. There is famine in the land and the widow feeds Elijah with her last bit of meal and oil, and God makes these miraculously last until the famine is over. Elijah also brings her son back from the dead after a grave illness.
And Naaman was a commander from Syria who had been stricken with leprosy – he heard about the prophet Elisha and traveled to Israel, begging to see Elisha and to be made clean. Elisha tells him to wash seven times in the Jordan, and Naaman is healed.
Both Naaman and the widow were outsiders to Israelite society – outsiders because of their nationalities and outsiders because of their respective social status. Jesus brings up these two stories to make a point to his hearers: namely that, when Elijah and Elisha were around, there were plenty of widows and lepers in Israel – but God didn’t send the prophets to them. God chose to send prophets to those on the outside, to those on the margins, to those who needed God’s love the most. Heh, you might say God sent prophets to heal the Brunos of the world.
And if this weren’t already enough to tick the people off, Jesus also makes pretty clear that he likewise will not be performing any miracles of healing in Nazareth – he can’t because of the people’s unbelief and hardness of heart. This is what really makes the people mad. Just like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus refuses to limit his ministry to his own people or even to make them his priority. Jesus has come to show love to those who need God’s love the most. Jesus has come to show love to the ones his people have neglected to love.
And I think that’s really the heart of this story. It highlights the contrast between God’s love and human love. It’s not just about the people of Israel; it’s about us too. Whether we like to admit it or not, we humans are always trying to put limits around God’s love – we want God to love the people we love and to hate the people we hate. We don’t want to hear God talk about Bruno because we don’t want to talk about Bruno. We want to put boundaries around God’s heart that look like the boundaries around our own hearts.
But the gospel truth is that God’s heart is boundless. And God’s love is limitless. God’s love is without restrictions or conditions. God’s love is the kind of love Paul writes about in our second reading in his letter to the Corinthians:
[God’s] love is patient; [God’s] love is kind; [God’s] 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. [God’s] love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [God’s] love never ends.1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
God’s love is for all, eternally and unconditionally. God loves the people we love and the people we hate – and everyone else in between. And while sometimes that might make us angry enough to want to throw Jesus off a cliff, it’s ultimately very good news. I mean, there are probably people out there who are mad about the fact that God loves *us* – but God loves us anyway. Even when we ourselves are the ones who feel like we don’t deserve God’s love, God loves us anyway.
And that’s something I love about the ending of Encanto: in the end, it becomes clear that the cracks in the house are because of division in the family caused by Alma’s hard-heartedness. And Alma herself feels terrible about this. But the resolution isn’t that now Alma is the one who gets cast out by the family. Alma repents and reconciles with Mirabel and Bruno. And all three are embraced by the family with open arms and with so much love.
This is the kind of loving community to which we are called. We are called to live in the unending love that God has for us – love that has no boundaries. And we are called to work on breaking down the boundaries around our own hearts, until everyone – every widow, Naaman, Mirabel, and even Bruno – finds a welcome.