"Jesus' Mission In-cludes the Ex-cluded"
A sermon based upon Luke 4:14-30
It’s been almost five years since I returned to Alpena --my home-town. It’s been five years since I was called to be the minister of this, my former "home church." I couldn’t help but think about that when I read the Bible story we heard today
Jesus has returned home to Nazareth, to preach in his home congregation. It started well, but it ended badly!
I must admit that Jesus was bolder than me! Unlike me, who was an ordained minister for 30 years before coming home to Alpena, Jesus came right away to his home church for his inaugural sermon! In other words, he’s just getting started…
Following his baptism, and his subsequent 40 days of testing by the devil in the wilderness(in Luke’s Gospel),Jesus immediately went back to his own people in his hometown of Nazareth to announce his mission. This was before Jesus called any disciples to follow him! He’s on his own in his hometown.
There in the sanctuary that he knew from his youth, Jesus reads aloud the prophet Isaiah’s revolutionary call for "justice for the poor" and "liberation for prisoners" --and announces that today--right then and right there… right now -- in their hearing, this Scripture from Isaiah was being fulfilled!
At first, they were flattered that Jesus had come home.
People left Nazareth all the time –there wasn’t a lot of job opportunities in their little town. No advanced schooling in Nazareth. People who had a plan went (either) to the regional Capitol "Sepphoris", or down to the Sea of Galilee to the new Capitol City "Tiberias". The top draw, of course, would be to go South to Judea, to Jerusalem, where the market action was!
Furthermore, the Galilean town of Nazareth had a bad reputation: "What good thing ever came from Nazareth?" was a pejorative slogan often heard in Jesus’ day. (see John 1:46)
But on this Sabbath day, one of their own, Jesus --a real Nazarene who had grown up there --had come home to share his wisdom with his home congregation. I think people were excited; curious.
Luke tells us that "all spoke well of him; and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said: ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’"
You know, when I came here five years ago, I benefitted by being known as "Dodi’s son." Those of you who did not know me, and who may have wondered about the wisdom of calling someone from Southern California (the Left Coast, you know; the land of fruits & nuts) said: "But I knew your Mom, and she’s one of my favorite people. So, if you’re at all like Dodi, you’ll do."
Jesus began his sermon by saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him… anointing him –Messiah-ing him, Christ-ening him –to preach Good News to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind… to let the oppressed go free!"
At first, they were dazzled and amazed. They all spoke well of him. It looks like Jesus was off to a good start there in his home town church in Nazareth.
But then the murmurs and grumbles began. Did Jesus just claim to be like a new Isaiah? How does Jesus know that the Spirit of God is upon him, anointing HIM!? This guy, this son of a carpenter(Joseph), is going to fulfill the prophet’s promise of justice? After 600 years?
Who does Jesus think he is, coming back home after his sojourns elsewhere, and telling his hometown synagogue members that right now, right here he fulfills the Scriptures!?
Jesus hasn’t even done any miracles in Nazareth yet, like he had done down in Capernaum. Jesus knew that the people wanted to see some proof--some religious spectacle--to know that God was truly with Jesus. They don’t really want to listen to him preach a sermon. But he preaches one anyway!
And as if it weren’t bad enough that Jesus named some clearly un-acceptable folks in his litany of blessings --bringing good news to the poor… release of captives (prisoners?)… coming to the aid of blind people; people who are oppressed--to make matters worse, the two examples that Jesus drew from the Bible were precisely the opposite kinds of stories than the usual "Teachers of the Law" would talk about.
In the first example --taken from the days of the great prophet Elijah--Jesus points out that there were many widows in Israel in the days of the great drought, when there was no rain for three and a half years . . . and a great famine over-whelmed the land of Israel. But Elijah brought relief to none of them, but only to Zar’-efath, to a foreign widow in the land of Sidon (in Lebanon).
Did God not care about the suffering of Israel? Didn’t God care about Jewish
widows? Why would the God of the Jews help a foreigner?
Jesus brought up an uncomfortable subject --God’s blessing being bestowed on foreign people (on "non-Jews") --and he gave them no easy answer.
His second Bible story made things even worse! "There were many lepers in the land of Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha. But none of them was cleansed … but only Na’aman,the Syrian! "Not only was Na’aman a foreigner--an Assyrian, an Arab (not a Jew!) --but he had been a General in the opposing Army…who had just wreaked havoc on the people and territory of Israel! If there was one person that the Jews of Northern Israel would have wanted to punish, it was General Na’aman of the Syrian Army! And yet it was this man, and only him, who was cured of leprosy by God.
Jesus’ choice of these two stories from Scripture makes one think: has God no allegiance to the Jewish people? Why does the God of the Bible care anything about those violent heathen power-brokers like Assyria’s General Na’aman, while doing nothing for the suffering people of Israel? (!) Bringing up stories like that from the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) could make people uncomfortable--make them question the kind of God they had been taught to believe in.
You can see why most Teachers of the Law and Bible scribes would simply skip over stories like that. (!) But Jesus, in his very first sermon recorded in the Gospel of Luke --in what one might think would have been the safe confines of his hometown sanctuary --brings up the more universal and in-clusive side of God… the God who cares for foreign widows and who heals enemy generals --both of whom would have been "excluded" by the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day. (!) Do you see why that sermon was not well received!?
Is it any wonder that the worship service brokeup in arguments and yelling!?
All the gracious words that had impressed them at the start, apparently, were forgotten. All the promises of "justice for the poor" and "bringing release to the captives" were drowned out in the cacophony of outrage to think that Israel’s God would assist foreigners and heal enemy combatants!…That God would include the very people that their civic pride & religious sentiments would have excluded rubbed them the wrong way. Since Jesus had grown up there, he should have known better!
The direct outcome of that sermon was that the people tried to kill Jesus! They wanted to throw him off a cliff.(!) And these were his home-town Nazareth neighbors!
But the good news is, that --even though the people tried to silence Jesus…to kill him, if that’s what it took, to put God back into the box of acceptable"civic" religion --the promise Jesus made remains.Those blessings to the poor, and to the captives, to the blind and the oppressed, to the widows and the foreigners… was going to happen! This vision articulated long ago by the prophet Isaiah would be the mission Jesus pursued, regardless of the opposition it stirred up!
Because Jesus was able to imagine it, and was willing to announce it publicly, and ultimately proved ready & able to live it –Jesus fulfilled the prophet’s dream of justice. For a preacher to try to stretch the people’s thinking like that, and to say that it was actually happening (and that God’s Spirit was behind it!), wasn’t normal in a worship service!
Those words from the prophet Isaiah had been read (periodically) in the synagogues many times over the past 600-700 years, but his words were most likely dismissed as Utopian rhetoric. "Isaiah’s dream of a Messiah,and his promise of a new world order--where the poor will be blessed, where captives are set free, and people are healed --is not to be taken literally,"the Bible scholars may have said.
But then, suddenly, Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits down, and says: "These words from the prophet are to be taken seriously, because they are being fulfilled in them right then, right there, right now!" (As Mark’s Gospel put it succinctly: "The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the Good News!"It’s here; it’s happening!)
When Jesus reminds the people of passages of Scripture that cut against the theological grain --exposing their narrow-minded nationalism--the congregation exploded with anger and violence! Feeling insulted by Jesus’ historical references and his in-your-face political analysis,the devout congregation screams: "How dare he ruin our polite liturgy by speaking of God consorting with the enemy!? How dare he imply that we are not on God’s side in the pursuit of justice!? "Yes, Jesus’ radically in-clusive message toward the very kinds of people that they were purposely excluding triggered a violent reaction!
Luke describes the rapid transformation of a religious gathering into a murderous mob! (It’s enough to give a person whiplash!) The people are filled with fury. They rise up as one. They drive Jesus out of the town, and lead him to the brow of a hill. They intend to hurl him over the cliff to be done with him and his radically inclusive perspective.
This is the challenging thought:These faithful hometown folks respond to Jesus’ call for justice… but they respond with the desire to kill him! His words, brief though they were, have unmasked their murderous hearts! They apparently have a deeper allegiance to injustice--which leaves the poor poor and the prisoners in their captivity, and leaves the blind blind and the oppressed still oppressed--than they do to the vision of God’s kingdom coming on earth (as it is in heaven). Their hostility toward their enemies trumps any idealistic vision of reconciliation.
With two simple Bible examples, Jesus exposes them. These are not people of prayer,or faith, and they will never accept Isaiah’s vision as their mission, nor will they embrace Jesus’ desire for social healing of the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed.
Unfortunately, apparently even in this little Galilean village which already had a bad reputation, their thinking was on the side of the dominant majority.
These devout people knew (deep down, where it’s not mentioned) that they benefited from the oppression of the poor. You see, they could pay the poor lower wages because there were so many of them, hungry for work, just to survive! The good people of Nazareth knew that some of their leading families grew wealthier by confiscating property of those who were in debt, or better yet, those who had gone off to prison!
Most of them felt safer because the system imprisoned captives. And, frankly,they agreed with the marginalization of outsiders…because the exacerbation of social class divisions is what kept the power in their hands.You "Divide and Conquer!" Get the classes & the races to fear (or to hate or to envy)each other, and they’ll fight it out among themselves. It’s the way business was done! It’s smart politics, you know.
But here comes Jesus, proclaiming in God’s name: good news to the poor, liberation of captives, healing the blind, setting the oppressed free, and proclaiming a jubilee year when all debts would be forgiven! He summons his home congregation to put God’s reign of justice into action–today, right now, in our own hearing of the Good News Gospel story.
Like Jesus then, we (his followers) now are expected to take up his cause: to proclaim good news to the poor, and do what we can to make it happen!
We, too, are to work toward liberating captives and getting people "unstuck" from old habits. We, too, are to bring light to the blind and hope to the overwhelmed. If we are to be Jesus’ disciples –his followers, people who claim his name–then we ought to be seeking to fulfill Isaiah’s dream even if, like Jesus, it puts us socially "at risk." Even if it sets us apart…
The Gospel according to Jesus offers us a choice: we can either join Jesus’ mission (as he has stated it here), or we can reject it, as the congregation in Nazareth did 2,000 years ago. We can risk it, or we can reject it.
We can risk our self-interest by bringing good news to the poor, and by releasing the trapped, and by offering liberty to the oppressed, and by seeking justice and economic transformation of society…Yes, we can stand with the marginalized and demand "inclusive justice " for the outcasts and outlaws, for the left-outs and the left-overs, for "sinners" and social "lepers" and all the other kinds of "lost ones" who are so easily over-looked in polite society.
Or… we can respond to Jesus’ demand for inclusive justice like the crowd in Jesus’ own hometown did: with some anger, resentment, and maybe even some attempted violence.
It strikes me that their violent negative reaction is far out of proportion to the inclusive Gospel that Jesus was preaching. After all, he was one of their own; Jesus’ Mother & brothers & sisters were among them. He was from a carpenter’s working-class family. One would not expect much from such humble roots, any more than one would look for anything good to come from Nazareth.
So, Jesus must have said something that gave them concrete examples of what Good News to the poor, and release to the captives, would have meant.
And whateverhe said must have been more than just examples of Old Testament stories that featured Isaiah, Elijah, and Elisha –quaint old-fashioned prophets from 600 or 700 years ago would be too easy to dismiss! Jesus must have mentioned examples from his own day…maybe even named some names!
I’ve noticed it’s a habit of churches to try to find the middle way between
controversial issues --doing our best not to "rock the boat" in matters of politics, economics, and social justice. One way to do that is to promote personal piety(devotional orthodoxy) rather than the pursuit of economic justice and social liberation.
In other words, we gather for prayer and worship, and for Bible reading--as did those Nazareth faithful --without really intending to take to heart the prophet’s command to "seek justice" and to "make peace." It’s as if they expected Jesus to unroll the Torah scripture, read the familiar text about good news to the poor, and then roll it up and talk about something else!
There’s a lot of bad news for the poor out there, but we don’t like to mention it. Because when we do, it makes us squirm.There’s a lot of good news for Wall Street–the Dow is up well over 24,000; good returns for stock portfolios –but un-employment on Main Street is still high…stores are shuttered.
The regularly recurring drop in the government’s unemployment rate statisticsis because another 1 & a half million people lost their long-term unemployment benefits on Jan. 1st! When people stop receiving government unemployment payments, they are dropped from the rolls of the unemployed… no longer counted! It’s not because they got jobs… they’ve just been unemployed for too long to be counted anymore. When a person gives up looking for a job, our government no longer counts them as "unemployed". Bizarre!
The church by-&-large tolerates our culture’s bad news to the poor: accepting welfare cuts, down-sizing of schools, the discontinuing of needed social services; wages too low to live on, even when holding two jobs; inadequate health-care even as the price for "Affordable Health" insurance skyrockets.
While we work to get our loved-ones out of jail as soon as possible, we don’t usually talk about releasing prisoners during Sunday worship! Truth be told, many church-going folks support the construction of more prisons, and vote for measures that make incarceration as long and painful as possible. Send ’em to the hoose-gow & throw away the key! Why should prisoners have any rights?
We know (deep down) that if we are going to follow Jesus, we have to embrace Isaiah’s cause as our own--just as he did --and we have to be prepared for the controversy and trouble that inevitably follows.
I am impressed by the fact that, even after his message was rejected by his hometown congregation --and violently so! --Jesus nevertheless continued with his mission. And I imagine he wants us to do the same in his name: to pursue the vision (God’s vision, the Kingdomof Heaven) come what may.
Like Jesus in Nazareth, it is very possible that as we begin to do so, we will face opposition --and hostility --from within our own culture.
50 years ago,the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.was assassinated as he organized a "Poor People’s Campaign."I believe God sent him to demand equality and civil rights for all people, economic justice for the poor, and an end to American military expansionism. (Tomorrow’s protest marches in Lansing & elsewhere are an echo of that "Poor People’s Campaign".)
I also believe that God sent Mahatma Gandhi to resist racism in South Africa, to rebel against British imperialism in India, and to call humanity to non-violence. I believe that God sent Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, to advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised and to denounce the death-squad government that eventually shot him to death while he celebrated Mass.
I believe God sent Dorothy Day, and Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu… and you & me… in hopes that we (together) will fulfill this biblical vision… in Jesus’ name.
God sends us into our own hometowns to call for justice. It’s a risk, but if we do so, I believe one day the world will say: we were on to something, after all!
Be of good courage !