No hometown Hero - Sermon for Epiphany 4C
Don’t you love cliff hangers? If you’re old enough, you might remember that for an entire summer the nation’s attention was arrested by the question of “Who shot J.R.?” The lectionary left us in a somewhat similar position last week. When last we gathered, Jesus was making a few comments about the reading from Isaiah 61, which spoke of the Year of Jubilee. When he sat down, he told the congregation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s where we pick up the story this morning. Jesus is telling the people that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah 61. He is the one anointed with the Spirit who will institute the Year of Jubilee, and with it freedom from poverty, imprisonment, and captivity.
The people are still amazed at his words, after all this is Joseph’s son. We know this man. We watched him grow up. So how did he become such a great preacher? Well that’s as good as it gets, because Jesus quickly moves from hometown hero to persona non grata!
I’m not sure what to make of the reference to Joseph. Is it a positive or a negative? After all, right after Luke records this comment, Jesus turns the tables on the hometown crowd. He questions their motives. He tells them that they’re going to demand that he perform some miracles. While they may like his words, they want some goodies as well.
I’m tempted to read between the lines, so I can better understand why Jesus told the home crowd that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Why did Jesus get belligerent?
Then again, if history was a guide, then Jesus had reason to be concerned. Ancient Israel rarely gave God’s prophets a hero’s welcome. More often than not they ran them off or they killed them. Part of the reason for this less than stellar welcome was the tendency of prophets to deliver bad news. No one likes getting bad news, even if it purportedly comes from God. This morning the lectionary pairs a reading from Jeremiah with the reading from Luke’s Gospel. In that reading, God told Jeremiah not to worry if the people didn’t welcome his message. God would deliver him (Jeremiah 1:4-10). So, maybe this is why nobody marked down the prophetic gift on the white board in the fellowship hall. If the people are going to despise you for being a prophet, who wants to be a prophet?
In trying to make his point, Jesus told two stories. One had to do with Elijah and the other with Elisha. He reminded them that Israel once experienced a lengthy drought, sort of like recent drought in California, which led to famine. Since Elijah had told the king that God was going to withhold the rain until he repented, Elijah’s presence was no longer welcome in the kingdom. So Elijah found refuge in a village in Sidon, which was enemy territory, and God blessed the home that welcomed him. Then there’s the story of Elisha, who cleansed the Syrian general Naaman of his leprosy, even though there were plenty of lepers in Israel who weren’t cleansed. These stories suggest that God isn’t bound by our borders. God can move in new directions, sharing blessings however God chooses.
Unfortunately for Jesus, these stories didn’t sit well with the people in Nazareth. They didn’t like being reminded that they could not expect God to always bless them and curse their enemies. They thought they had God under control, and Jesus told them otherwise! That made them mad. They may have held their tongues when Jesus declared that he was the embodiment of Jubilee, but they couldn’t let slide him questioning their status as God’s chosen people. That was simply unpatriotic of him!
What I hear Jesus’ telling the home crowd is that God is not bound by our borders. I hear him say that God is the God of all the nations. That includes ours, but not just ours. If this is true, what would Jesus have to say about the current debates over immigration and the status of refugees? Would Jesus close the borders to people whose faith tradition was different from his own? I don’t think so, which is probably why he got in trouble with the hometown crowd.
When his neighbors had heard enough, they pushed him out of the synagogue toward the cliff that lay outside the town. They threatened to throw him off that cliff; so how’s that for a cliff-hanger? But when they got to the edge of the cliff, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” I hear in this statement by Luke an echo of God’s promise to Jeremiah: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (Jer. 1:8).
Walter Brueggemann is a scholar with a prophetic mantle. In fact, he looks the part of the prophet. In preaching on Luke 4, he noted:
From the outset of the Bible, certainly in God’s command of Sinai and surely in the ministry of Jesus, signals of neighborliness are endlessly enacted. That finally is what is odd and true and demanding and glorious about the Gospel, that God wills and acts toward a neighborliness that curbs greed, vetoes fear, and removes the causes of violence. We baptized people are the ones who have signed on for this vision and act toward it. [Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, p. 143].
Later on in Luke’s Gospel Jesus responds to a question about the identity of the neighbor, whom we are to love. He told a story about a Samaritan, a person who not only lived outside the borders, but whom Jews despised (and the reverse was also true). After telling how a Samaritan decided to care for the one who was injured, at his own expense, Jesus asked who was the neighbor? The Samaritan? Or, the religious leaders who walked by? Obviously it was the Samaritan. As I think about the story, I wonder how many times I have passed by the one in need!
Jesus’ vision of neighborliness is a broad one, and not everyone is ready to get on board. My prayer for us, however, is that we might be prepared to be that good neighbor.
One place to learn more about neighborliness occurs this afternoon at Gesu Catholic Church in Detroit. This afternoon we get to help launch a new venture called DRIVE that is designed to build bridges between city and suburbs, so that everyone in the region might share in the common good so that they might flourish.
There’s another opportunity tomorrow evening, when we host the Troy-area Interfaith Group. At a time when growing numbers of people express fears about Muslims and speak badly about Islam, even suggesting that we run them out of the country, we have the opportunity to hear a word about Islam from a friend of the congregation, Saeed Khan. He will be speaking about the diversity and complexity of the Islamic faith and the ways in which it is practiced. Yes, to be neighborly is to create a climate where people can flourish, no matter who they are, where they come from, and what they believe about God.
Last Sunday, we heard that Jesus acted in the power of the Holy Spirit. In a similar vein, Miroslav Volf reminds us that world religions emphasize the importance of the transcendent. We can’t live by bread alone:
For we all live also by bread, and without bread all of us are dead. Still, without the divine Word we shrivel even when we are in overdrive, we fight and destroy, we perish. The Word is the bread of life, and it gives abundant life, as it is suggested in the Torah and written in the Gospels (Deuteronomy 8:1-20; John 6:35; 10:10). [Flourishing, p. 22]
Jesus came to Nazareth, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. His sermon caused quite a stir. Then again, that’s what happens when a prophet comes to town, especially when the prophet is from the hometown! When Jesus comes to us, and invites us to share in Jubilee, what is our answer? Are we ready to transgress boundaries and borders so that all of humanity might flourish?
About image: Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1836-1902. Brow of the Hill Near Nazareth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55366 [retrieved January 30, 2016]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Brow_of_the_Hill_near_Nazareth_(L%27escarpement_de_Nazareth)_-_James_Tissot.jpg.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 31, 2016