Hancock Church Sermon

Rev. Paul Shupe

February 3, 2013

Luke 4:21-30


This is the conclusion of the story begun last week.  Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, and with a growing reputation for wise teaching going ahead of him, goes at last to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.  Invited to read, he chooses a text from the prophet Isaiah promising the coming of the Messiah who will bring good news to the poor and oppressed.  He tells them that he is the fulfillment of this prophecy.  Impressed that this wonderful thing should have come from their hometown, all speak well of him.   But now listen, because Jesus is about to challenge them to grow in unanticipated ways.  And their response is to reject and threaten him.

Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Jesus on the Edge

So there is Jesus, standing among a once adoring crowd that has become a mob.  According to Luke, they have pushed, prodded, and carried him along, out the synagogue where he first irritated and then enraged them, through the streets, to the very edge of the city, to the cliff on which their city is built.  Their intentions are entirely clear: they are going to kill him, throwing him off the cliff.  Put yourself for a moment in his shoes: are your saying to yourself “Well, this is all going nicely according to my plans?” or are you saying “Wait, what?  How did we get here?  What did I say?  How did it all fall apart so quickly?”  There are some who argue that Jesus knew in advance everything that was going to happen.  If you hold such a view, then Jesus was certainly unsurprised and not alarmed by what was happening to him, and we have no choice but to interpret this story as being about the teeny tiny faith of the people in Nazareth, who, offered a place on the inside of his movement, rejected him instead.  The story is not then terribly interesting.  It is a blunt weapon of warning to us; don’t be like those Nazarenes: believe and follow him.
Then again there are theologians like me, who are not troubled by the notion that Jesus is fully human, and so, like all of us, does not know the future ahead of time in all its details.  Jesus, in such a view, can be surprised; even more important, Jesus can learn.  He can actually change and grow.  If you are willing to accept such a starting place, then what we have here is a story of a new prophet, just getting his sea legs.  Remember, this is early in Luke’s gospel; Jesus is just beginning his ministry.  He’s had a good run of success, apparently; he’s developed a reputation that has preceded him into his hometown.  Going to the synagogue at Nazareth he tries out a new message, claiming to be the fulfillment of prophecy.  It’s well received.  So well received in fact that everyone is smiling, everyone is murmuring their approval.  Perhaps Jesus senses in their smiling faces a smug self-confidence: “Hey, this is great!  The Messiah is one of us!  Just think of how wonderful things will be for us… no more sickness, no more worries, no more wondering…”  We can’t know for sure what he was thinking, Luke doesn’t tell us.  But his next words and actions suggest that he saw something in their reaction to him that he did not like.  And so he began to goad them.
“One thing is true for sure,” he said, “no prophet is welcome in his hometown.”  And that was irritating to them because they’d just made it clear how welcome he was.  And then he went on to prove why that the old saying was right.  “You’re going to say, do for us here what you’ve been doing in other places.  We’re the good guys, give us what we deserve.”  And then he reminded them of a couple of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures.  The first concerned the prophet Elijah, who whom God sent for food and protection to a widow, not of Israel, but of the Gentile community of Sidon.  And then he reminded them that in the time of Elijah’s successor Elisha, there were lots of Jewish lepers who could have been healed to show God’s power, but the one chosen was Naaman, a Syrian.  It’s as if Jesus is going out of his way to needle them.  Being on the inside is not what God is about.  Being special to God doesn’t guarantee you perks and inside information and special privileges.  God can work through anyone at anytime, he is telling them.  And they get the message.  The needle has stung.  Their good will has given way, first to confusion, then to anger, and now to murderous rage.  And they move Jesus from synagogue to precipice in less than a blink.
And as I see him, Jesus is wondering: “What has happened here?  How did it come to this?  And so fast?  Is this how it’s all going to end?  How can I get out of this?”  Now the story is interesting.  Jesus surely does not want everything to end at the bottom of the cliff in Nazareth.  He’s just getting started.  He has much more to teach, and many more places to go.  He has to be wondering if he’s pushed too hard, too fast, made it too difficult for people to listen, to learn, to grow.  If we’re willing to grant the premise that Jesus was learning and changing, then this story becomes not a simple condemnation of a few faithless residents of Nazareth, but a more universally interesting story about leadership.  How does one lead into new understanding without alienating those she longs to lead?  How does one speak the truths of God’s justice when the people would frankly rather not hear about it?  How does a leader bring a community into a new understanding, into change, without so irritating them that they resist and long to kill the messenger?  I see Jesus standing there among them, on the edge, thinking and learning, and doing so quickly.  His life depends upon it.
And here we are, I submit, right there with him.  We have, after all, dared to gather in his name.  We have, after all, dared to gather at his table.  And there are lots of voices in our own hometown, in our country, who would pat us on the head and tell us what nice, polite, good citizens we are, as long as we just keep things to ourselves.  “Talk all you want to, among yourselves.  Just don’t bring that message of justice for all out into the world beyond your sanctuary.”  But we can’t help ourselves.  Not if we are honest.  Because here in this sanctuary, the witnesses that we hear from scripture and tradition and one another all attest that our God is interested in justice.  Our God cares about the poor and the powerless, and not merely the privileged and the powerful.  And here, at this table, we are reminded that what matters most to God is not how much we’ve accomplished, or what accolades we’ve accumulated, but rather simply that we’ve accepted that we are loved just as we are, and that we’ve accepted the call to love others just as they are.
I think sometimes we forget how edgy that makes us.  I think sometimes we forget how big and powerful and dangerous is the idea that people are only good if they’re productive.  We forget how pervasive is the notion that wealth and privilege is the best thing that any human being can aspire to.  I think sometimes that we forget that the great message of our culture is to consume, to buy, to acquire.  In such a world, a message of justice, not for some, but for all, is dangerous.  In such a world, a message of God’s love being given graciously, and not as a reward for high achievement, is subversive.  In such a world, the notion that God’s call is to serve, rather than to be served, is well, edgy.
And so here we are: in God’s sanctuary, at Christ’s table.  But we do not live here.  We cannot stay here.  We receive the Good News that is offered here.  But out we must go:  out into the world that denies what we know to be true; out in to a world that would tempt us to just go along and get along; out into a world where ignoring the poor is surprisingly easily done.  Out we go to be leaders in Jesus’ name, standing with him, at the edge, wondering how we’ll survive the angry reactions of people who think we’re nuts to live lives of generous sharing and tireless advocacy for fairness and justice.  Out we go, with him, to the edge, where lives are changed, and a world is made new.  Out we go!  To the edge!  Amen.