Sunday, January 31. 2016
Text: Luke 4:14-30 (The Message)
As I considered this morning’s text, I got to wondering how often you all agree with or like everything I have to say. I won’t actually take a poll, but I imagine every preacher and every sermon has fans and detractors. Fortunately, I’ve never made the congregation angry enough to want to do me in. I’m sure some would be happy if I just gave you the slip and was on my way – anywhere but here. Now, to be clear, I am not comparing myself to Jesus except perhaps in the function of preaching. A sermon is a sermon, for better or worse. As we consider this text, I am reminded of the old adage that a sermon, the gospel, the Word of God ought to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Jesus certainly did that big time.
He’d come back to his home church to preach for the first time. Though he probably did not have lot of formal education, he had gone out into the world to study in the “university of life,” to learn from his cousin, John, to listen for God’s guidance, to find the fullness of the ministry to which he had been called. Now he had returned to his home territory and was back at that little synagogue in Nazareth where he had learned to read and had studied the ancient texts. The place was packed. Everyone had come out to hear the” local boy made good.” Word had filtered back to them about the amazing things he was saying and doing as he traveled the countryside.
Can you imagine, living in a farming village of a couple hundred people? The brightest boy to ever come up in your little town had gone off to see the world and make his fortune. Now he was coming home for the first time in a while. Maybe there would be a parade and a picnic in the park, everyone gathered round to hear what their hero had to say.
I don’t know if Jesus’ experience was quite like that but Luke says when he stood up to read in the synagogue, “Every eye in the place was on him, intent…”and “All who were there, watching and listening, were surprised at how well he spoke.” It seems they were excited, eager to hear him, proud of his growing reputation. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son, the one we’ve known since he was a youngster?” My, my, how he’s grown up. Hear how well he read? Doesn’t he make a good impression? His parents must be so proud.
They must also have been hoping that he would work some of those wonders they’d been hearing about for them. After all, weren’t they his people? The village that had raised him? Shouldn’t they have first claim on his gifts for healing, exorcism and teaching? Really, they thought, shouldn’t he establish himself right there in Nazareth? They didn’t come out and say as much but Jesus apparently had some inkling.
What was it he read to them on that momentous occasion – a couple of short passages from the scroll of Isaiah?
“God’s Spirit is on me;
he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, ‘This is God’s year to act!’”
Isn’t that lovely? Isaiah wrote so beautifully. I love to hear his words, especially when they’re so well read. I wonder what he will have to say about these texts?
He sat down, as teachers did in those days, and what he said astonished them. “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.” There was an uncomfortable stirring in the room. What can he mean by that? How can this be? Is he making some sort of claim about himself and his ministry? Wait a minute, let’s go back over those verses he read one more time.
God’s spirit is on him…preach good news to the poor…announce pardon to prisoners…recovery of sight to the blind…freedom for the battered and burdened…the time is now? Sounds like some sort of social welfare agenda. That will never play in Iowa or New Hampshire or Nazareth. Are you now or have you ever been…? What happened to that great kid that Mary and Joseph raised? He’s gone out into the world and come back ruined. They chose to ignore that he had read from their own holy writings.
And then, to make matters worse, he rubs their nose in it by telling them that they have no exclusive or privileged claim on God’s good news or the amazing ministry of God’s Chosen One. He reminds them how both Elijah and Elisha, great prophets of their tradition, served foreigners, when plenty of their own were just as needy. Oh, they did not like this business about widening the circle, including outsiders, even giving them special consideration. In fact, they got so riled up, they ran him out of town, threatening to do him bodily harm. Good boy gone bad…certainly not welcome here…poor Joseph and Mary, they must be mortified.
In considering this ancient word, I can’t help but see parallels for us. We live in a time and culture characterized by insecurity and anger. We can see it infecting the current election cycle. People claiming to be Christian are twisting the Gospel into something unrecognizable. I can only imagine, they, too, would be appalled at Jesus’ reading and furious with this preferential concern for the poor and needy. Writing on the current state of politics in this country, Rachel Held Evans blogs, “This passage from Luke 4 is a declaration of the nature and aim of the gospel—the good news…it nearly got Jesus thrown off a cliff. As it turns out, the kind of people [the angry and insecure,] the Religious Right deem acceptable collateral damage in their quest for power—the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hated minorities—are the very people Jesus prioritized. His life and ministry started with them and his kingdom will ultimately be realized through them.” She insists, “The gospel isn’t about protecting power and privilege, but rather about surrendering them until God’s vision of justice is fulfilled.”
She goes on to tell the story of Donald Trump dropping in on worship at the First Presbyterian Church of Muscatine, Iowa, last Sunday. Preaching on the first part of this text from Luke, he heard pastor Pam Saturnia proclaim, “Jesus has come to proclaim freedom and healing to those who are the most unloved, who are the most discriminated against, the most forgotten in our community and in our world. Jesus has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor on the teenagers who are homeless, on the Syrian refugees, on the Mexican migrants, and the people who find themselves prisoners of addiction and their families, on the poorest of the poor in Haiti — Jesus has come for them” (Rachel Held Evans, “Donald Trump and a Tale of Two Gospels,” January 28, 2016, rachelheldevans.com). I won’t draw any conclusions. You can do that for yourselves, but I do wonder if he heard this as good news any more than the people of Nazareth heard Jesus’ proclamation as good news. Indeed, I wonder how easy it is for any of us to wrap our minds and hearts around such a word.
And Richard Rohr writes of the angry, insecure folk, “The cold person lives from a place of scarcity, invariably protecting and defending what little they think they have or are.” He argues that “The natural flow of grace is largely impossible when we are ‘sucking in’–when we’re stingy, petty, blaming, angry, playing the victim, or in any way offended. When we’re recounting what people did to us or what they did not do for us, we’re pulling back and sucking in” (Richard Rohr, “Grace: Week 1, Living in the Flow,” January 29, 2016, cac.org). Doesn’t that sound a lot like the good folk of Nazareth, not to mention some of our friends and neighbors and, truth be told, us, on occasion?
Then there is the challenge that Gregory and the children and youth have given us in this month’s special offering. We have at least been invited to consider moving beyond charity to solidarity, to actual community, with the poor and needy. In today’s Words of Preparation, Shane Claiborne challenges, “When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they start to get into trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity.” Honestly, I don’t know how we live into this challenge, but there it is, laid out, before us, much as Jesus laid out the challenge to his people in Nazareth.
Somehow, Jesus, the prophet, without honor among his own people, knew they would not hear or not embrace the way to God’s Beloved Community, even if he made it plain for them. He knew they would run him out of town. Perhaps, because we have the benefit of knowing their story, we can choose a different outcome. We can urge the prophet to get out of town, to leave us alone, or we can wake up to cries of our sisters and brothers in need. We can turn our backs, protecting our precious privileges and resources, or we can embrace the challenge to bring justice and equity, peace and harmony, love and compassion to the whole creation. We can proclaim Jubilee, or we can proclaim self-preservation. We can choose life, or death for ourselves, others, the planet. We can walk the Jesus way toward God’s Beloved Community, or we can try to hide from the inevitable day when God asks “And how was it with you and the least of these my children?” When Jesus proclaims the Good News in our hearing, how will we respond? Will he have to get out of town or will he find room with us? Amen.